Prison Stories

My First Thanksgiving in the State Penitentiary

An unexpected lesson in the power of generosity

Credit: EduardGurevich/iStock/Getty Images Plus

ItIt might not be the Plymouth Colony pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, wildfowl and popcorn, but my first Thanksgiving in a state prison had a few echoes of that famous feast.

Seven years ago, I was 19, fresh upstate, and didn’t know nothing about anything. My commissary account — the money I’d use to purchase approved food and cosmetic items biweekly — was virtually nonexistent. Every money order my family sent was diverted towards “surcharges,” or various administrative fees connected to my conviction. My monthly 35-pound food package from home was long gone. Bottom line: I was broke. With Thanksgiving just a few days away, my holiday plan was to walk through the frigid mountain air from my cell to the mess hall to choke down whatever provisions New York State would provide for lunch and bring back a few bologna sandwiches for dinner.

I was more fortunate than some in that I worked in the mess hall. Oftentimes when we were finished serving the other inmates (approximately 800 people), the workers were allowed to split up the leftovers. One day, with the holiday approaching, I returned to my dorm with a few spare slices of pizza in my possession. As I walked into the dorm, an older dude, known as KB, waved me over to where he was sitting. The Patriots were destroying the Jets as we spoke.

“That pizza would sure be good with some pepperoni and extra cheese,” KB said casually to his friend sitting next to him. Then he turned to me. “Check it,” he said. “I’m doing a little meal for Thanksgiving. I’ll throw you a bowl of food for two slices of pizza.”

I stood there contemplating the offer. Should I give up guaranteed food for a vague promise that might or might not pan out? Then again, while the pizza was one of the better prison offerings, it was still just mess hall food. The real risk was that KB might front — in other words, fail to keep his word. That would be a clear sign of disrespect, with negative consequences for my standing among my peers.

I hesitantly took the deal and handed over the pizza.

A few days later, turkey day finally arrived. My family’s kitchen is always a hectic place on Thanksgiving, but it’s nothing compared to what I encountered in the prison kitchen that morning, where 60 people shared a single stove. It looked like complete chaos, but there was a method to the madness. Everyone who was fortunate enough to have a package from home, or commissary food, pooled their items. People started cooking at 6 a.m., working in self-organized teams. Some groups consisted of up to 10 people. Two guys manned the stove, while two others prepped whatever ingredients would be cooked next.

By lunchtime, the feast was taking shape. Already, tables were lined with buckets of rice, some perfuming the room with a coconut aroma, others just as enticing with the addition of frijoles. One table was adorned with a garbage bag filled with macaroni salad and a giant spherical Boar’s Head turkey breast. Another was piled with rows of crab sticks and fish cakes.

With nothing to contribute, I took in the scene — no KB in sight — and kept walking. I trouped down that hill, ate what was in the mess hall, and got my four slices of bread and bologna, as planned.

I went to sleep that night with a full belly — a rare feeling in a place where I routinely went 14 hours with just four slices of bread to hold me over.

After I returned from chow, a few fellow inmates took pity on me. Into my bowl went a big slice of mac and cheese, a mound of fried rice, some stuffing and collard greens, and several slices of turkey. I took my chair into the small TV room and sat down to watch a movie. Hours passed, and suddenly I heard a loud knock on the window. KB motioned for me to come over to the cooking area. “Where your bowl at?” he asked. Uh oh.

My third meal of the day consisted of steamed cabbage, coconut rice, and yams, along with fish cakes and fried chicken.

“I threw in some crabby patties,” he said. “Let me know how it came out.”

Speechless, I took a bite. It was amazing.

I went to sleep that night with a full belly — a rare feeling in a place where I routinely went 14 hours with just four slices of bread to hold me over.

Thanksgiving really changed for me that night. It was the first time I really understood, on a personal level, how powerful generosity could be.

I eventually learned how to cook and began organizing my own Thanksgiving meals in prison, whenever I was able to, pooling resources with my fellow inmates and spreading out the good fortune like others had taught me. “Thanksgiving is big for me in the streets,” another inmate, Dondre Riddick, told me as we cooked up our plans for 2018. “My whole family gets together. But they ain’t here right now, so we got to make a family and do it big.”

That’s exactly what we did: BBQ chicken, mac and cheese, coconut rice, turkey, yams, seafood salad, collard greens and cranberry sauce. It took hours to prepare, but it was well worth the effort. And everyone was eager to share — especially with guys who, like me seven years before, had nothing to give. In the end, we fed at least 20 people.

As we sat and watched football, a fellow NYU student and good pal, Aunray Stanford looked towards me. “Yo, that BBQ chicken was fire,” he said.

I flashed him a grin. “I ain’t gon lie,” he added, voicing a sentiment that would have been familiar to the participants in that first Thanksgiving feast. “I feel mad good inside giving away all that food.”

Joseph Beer is a student in NYU’s Prison Education Program and a contributor to the Wallkill Journal.

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