Behind Bars: In prison, the biggest difference between Utah’s inmates is food

Monday , June 05, 2017 - 5:30 AM

BRIAN WOOD, Behind Bars columnist

In the outside world, people’s socioeconomic standing is always on display, from the communities they live in and the way they dress to the vehicles they drive.

In here, no matter the means of each prisoner, we live in the same community, we dress alike, and when we’re riding down the highway, we’re in a white van and wearing handcuffs. In prison, the biggest differentiator between the haves and the have-nots is the food inmates consume.

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I’ve recently moved to a more affluent area in the prison, as it houses working inmates almost exclusively. Of course, affluence in prison is a relative thing because of the $65 cap on weekly commissary orders. A prisoner who makes $260 per month has the same purchasing power and menu options as the prisoner who has millions stashed away.

Now, most inmates make considerably less than that, but it’s safe to say that a good portion of pay is spent on food.

Food is sometimes used as currency. For example, I used to pay another inmate a “soup,” or ramen noodle, to do a load of laundry for me. I’m pretty sure nobody in this new section would be interested in that transaction for 40 cents’ worth of food.

In a section where inmates have the ability to order other food and skip much of the state food altogether, a “tray” (meal provided by the state) has little to no value. The first economic effects I noticed during mealtimes in my new section, besides the line for the microwave, was the absence of “scavengers” — prisoners who wait by the garbage can to collect food prisoners are throwing away.

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In the last place I was housed, five or six prisoners did this, all in competition with each other like seagulls fighting over scraps at the park. Some prisoners just want extra food; others sell their trays for extra money.

In my old section, the standard value of a tray was a “stamp,” or stamped envelope, which is a common form of currency here. I used to sell quite a few of my trays for stamps, but I’d skip meals before resigning to scavenging.

It’s not necessarily a pride thing; I’ve seen some pretty awful things done to food before it’s sent to the birds.

There was one prisoner who, in true addict form, would sell all of his trays one month in advance for a few days’ worth of coffee. Then he would not only end up scavenging at every meal but would also walk around the section with his coffee mug all the time and ask anyone who made eye contact for a “shot” of coffee.

 

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It was fascinating to watch him continue to put himself in that position month after month and make his life so much harder just for a caffeine fix. It was kind of sad and would probably have been more so if he wasn’t one of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever met.

The irony of my passing judgment in this situation is not lost on me. Obviously, my appreciation of the lesson to be learned here is a bit late.

Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 35 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.

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