Outsider on the Inside
Reflections on our society by an Israeli born filmmaker


I was overseas this week screening my film Jesus Politics, when I received an unexpected letter from Mark.  The entire Texas prison system is under “lockdown,” after a death row inmate made a threatening telephone call to a state senator using a contraband telephone, allegedly smuggled into prison by a guard who was bribed.

What was more alarming to me was Mark’s description of what a “lockdown” means, which he describes in his current bog.  He had already mentioned in a past letter to me, that at times  like this prisoners are fed “Johnny sacks,” (cold food) such as when the electricity was down because of the impact of Hurricane IKE.  I learned that  “Johnny Sacks” consist of primarily cold sandwiches – typically peanut butter sandwiches.  In his current letter Mark’s claims that, although the press is reporting that  the lockdown began around October 21st, they have been in this state since October 13th.   His letter also describes a new type of sandwich:  “…three pancakes and two slices of bread with nothing on it.”

Twelve days is an awful long time to eat dry “pancake sandwiches” I thought to myself.  So we decided to investigate.  Jason Clark, the Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said Mark ‘s description of pancake sandwiches did not sound accurate, but he confirmed that inmates are being fed “Johnny sacks,” which could include peanut butter sandwiches. And yes, they could be getting these sandwiches three times a day. The reason, according to Clark, is that inmates typically cook the meals, but as they are also in lock down, everyone will most likely receive these Johnny sacks until the lock down ends, as long two to three weeks, the time needed to search individual cells in a statewide system that holds some 156,000 inmates.

That potentially amounts to a month of peanut butter sandwiches three times a day, possibly with periodic variety of dry pancakes with two slices of bread.  And this is the diet of 156,000 human beings who presumably are locked up 23 hours of each day. ( Mark claims that during  “lock up” there is no recreation hour so he is actually locked for 24 hours a day)  What is the health risk of eating this kind of a diet for a month?  I went online to find out.  A nurse from an Internet medical site answered me:

Hi Ilan Ziv:

My name is Sarah and I have worked in the Texas and New Mexico prison system for about seven years. That being said, I can confidently tell you they also receive a fruit like an orange or apple with their lunch and dinner sacks.  It’s not the best tasting but it will pass regulations. That being said, as long as there are no medical conditions that require a special diet there really should not be any health implications. Aside from maybe weight loss.”

Now I get it!  An orange or apple with the peanut butter sandwich (albeit only with lunch and dinner)   “will pass regulations” and might add those necessary vitamins that will avoid more serious health issues, i.e. more serious than weight loss. She also said the inmates still received their one-hour of recreation in an enclosed space within the pod of cells.  I fired a letter to Mark to see whether he could confirm the nurse’s claims. Here’s his response:

“Hell no we don’t get any juice or drinks. No fruit or recreation. The nurse is wrong!”

The reason I have become so obsessed with apples, oranges and peanut butter sandwiches is because   this whole absurd discussion is only a metaphor to how low we, as a society, have sunk. In an editorial entitled, “The California Prison Disaster,” published on Saturday Oct 27th in The New York Times, the writer points to the root of the problem – money:

“The mass imprisonment philosophy that has packed prisons and sent corrections costs through the roof around the country has hit especially hard in California, which has the largest prison population, the highest recidivism rate and a prison budget raging out of control.”

Sky-rocketing costs probably contribute to providing peanut butter sandwiches,  without leaving much room in the budget for more humane meal alternatives when a prison is locked down.

I guess once we accept the logic that we can execute prisoners, a daily diet that is imposed from time to time and consists of peanut butter sandwiches three times a day (and occasionally some other cold sandwich) is indeed no big deal. Who cares?  On death row, at least, they are all going to be killed anyway.


5 Responses to ““Lockdown””

  1. It isn’t right that inmates are being fed on such a poor diet. Even if they do receive fruit as the nurse claims, it hardly goes toward the recommended 5 portions a day of fruit and vegetables. I think the health implications would amount to far worse than just weight loss as they are not receiving the necessary proteins, nutrients and vitamins. I cannot imagine it is enough to fill the appetites of grown men either and surely this can create further problems when you have individuals who are being locked up the entire day deprived of excercise, sunlight and adequate food.
    Having visited the unit myself, I know for a fact that visitations are the only real times inmates receive salads, sweet snacks and chilled drinks which their friends and family purchase for them. The rest of the time they are generally fed noodles and other foods containing plenty of carbs which may bulk them up and make them look healthy but may not necessarily be so.
    On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, prisoners over here in England are given menus and all dietary needs and wants are catered for. This doesnt mean to say that I agree with this either (aside from dietary needs) and I think a medium between the two needs to be found.
    The prisoners in general population (in TX) do labor around the grounds, why can this not be stretched to growing fruit and vegetables on site and therefore having a cheaper way of providing healthier food to inmates?

  2. Me again. Reading this story has been playing on my mind so I decided alongside the nurses comments to seek a 2nd and 3rd opinion. One from a Doctor and the other a nurse. They both agreed that weight loss was the primary health factor alongside constipation, digestion problems and dehydration. Lack of sunlight would also mean low vitamin D. One commented ‘It is not ideal but they would be ok’
    ‘Ok’ is not good enough, it seems to me that the unit are able to keep within regulations but only just.

  3. Received a letter from Mark, he said one day they received a peanut butter sandwich (one spot of peanut butter) and 2 extremely HARD potatoes. Rock hard. Not even fit for consumption.
    During lockdown there is hardly any movement, showers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Normally during lockdown they are able to have visits which, if the inmate is lucky, the visitor will buy food from the machines. Now, visitation is off so they are not able to have that luxury.
    No commissary is allowed during lockdown. Polunsky has been under lockdown since October 13, 2008 and the last time Mark went to store was October 7, 2008. Everyone is out of food right now, not to mention other items like stamps and hygene products.
    I saw Mark on October 17th, bought him some cold soda’s at which time he said that would be the last time he had something cold until lockdown was over or I came to visit again. Which neither has happened.
    There is nothing coming in nor out of the prison as far as food is concerned because of the lockdown status so how long will the current food last? I imagine there is not enough storage to hold that much in reserve and with the amount of inmates on death row and general population combined there is probably slim pickens right now.
    A friend of mine received a letter from a guy who has been without a mattress since the beginning of last week. Grant it the mattresses are not good to begin with but when you have nothing that seems rather harsh.
    Another friend received a letter today and the guys have not received blankets yet. I know this is Texas but I live here too. Last night where I live was in the upper 30’s and Livingston is further north so I can just imagine how cold they were! I mean think about it, concrete walls, no heat and no blanket!
    When you put this all together, grown men who are hungry and not being fed a proper diet, combined with being cold, no visitations, no recreation, no commissary, barely any showers. Nothing! How long will this last? Another example of cruel and unusual punishment!
    I mad as hell and worried so please excuse the misspellings!

  4. After reading through this article, I just feel that I need more info. Can you suggest some more resources please?

  5. Do state sites that give inmate location let you know when the inmate may be released or if they have been transferred? Are transfers part of criminal records?

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