VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
You don't realize how hard cooking in a prison cell can be until someone tells you their story. Carmelo Musumeci, 60, a former Mafioso currently serving a life sentence in one of Italy's maximum-security prisons, was known for boiling water using the electrical wires of the cell's light bulb. As the ex-mobster himself says, "It was extremely dangerous. At times, when I was desperate, I even burned the alcohol from my aftershave to warm up the coffee."
Like a number of other high-security Italian prisoners, Musumeci was involved in the writing of a prison cookbook, Cooking in Maximum Security. Published by StampaAlternativa, a small, independent Italian publishing house, the book has the purpose of sharing inmates' experiences about the harsh realities of cooking inside a cell. Reading it gives us a factual glimpse of the conditions of Italian prisoners that often end up stuffed in damp cells built for half the number of inmates they typically host.
During a phone conversation with Matteo Guidi, the book's editor, I am told that the problems inmates face when cooking go well beyond not having access to pans, pots, stoves, and all the fancy kitchenware most of us take for granted. Difficulties arise way before, starting from the rules the prison system imposes. Regulations generally forbid inmates from receiving anything that could be used as a weapon, but in some cases, they end up barring some kinds of food as unlikely as fish. Apparently, fish can be used to deliver secret messages or drugs, and some prisoners have actually tried to choke themselves on the bones.
I had to learn more and talk to the inmates myself. "Easier said than done," Matteo warned me as I embarked on what turned out to be a four-month endeavor. I soon found out that meeting inmates requires so much paperwork and endless journeys into the maze on the Italian Kafkaesque bureaucracy that I decided to give up and settle for the old-school, regular mail.
Michelangelo Timpani is the only author of who is currently a free man. I reached him via phone and asked him what he missed the most from cooking in prison for 23 years. "Canned tomatoes," he answered without a second of hesitation. Not because of the juicy vegetables as one might think, but because in the absence of knives—among the forbidden equipment—the tin lids made an excellent substitute. "Thanks to them, we could mince meat, peel potatoes, and slice bacon. They were really a blessing."
Yet it did not last long. One day the warden decided lids were no longer safe and had cans replaced with bottles. "At that point we were given plastic knives, but they broke too easily and we'd need three to peel a single potato, so it was nearly impossible to get anything done."
As more letters came through the mailbox, I discovered the problems Timpani had faced were quite common among inmates. Pasquale De Feo, a maximum security inmate since 1992, explained the situation in his nicely handwritten letter: "Cooking for me was always very hard because what you can or can't do is really up to the warden. Some wardens are decent people but some are real bullies." If you are stuck with one of them, you have to deal with it and find ways around. So when knives and blades were forbidden, inmates removed the coating from the edge of the cell's cupboards and rubbed it on the wall until it became sufficiently sharp to be used as a knife.
High-security inmates, I learned from the letters, are particularly fond of baking. Baking is a time-consuming activity, and in prison most people struggle to get through the day because of a painful feeling of useless boredom. As Ugo De Santis, who has spent 18 years in a maximum-security unit and is now a volunteer cook for the Red Cross, tells me: "Preparing a cake takes time, so you can stay focused on that and don't think about anything else for a few hours." And it's not just about the baking: once you decide you want to cook, you need to plan the weekly menu ahead, write a shopping list, request the ingredients to the prison management, ask for permissions, and so on—time and time again.
As prison cells are not equipped with ovens, inmates have built personal ones. De Feo described the unusual process as follows: "We first coated the inside of the cupboards with patches of silver paper we recycled from cigarette packs. Then we made a hole in the bottom side of the cupboard and placed a portable stove underneath to heat it up."
But there are other creative ways to build your made-in-prison oven. Others used the cells' sitting stools, which they placed on a stove and wrapped in a blanket to keep them warm. All of this is extremely dangerous, not to mention illegal.
If you want to bake bread or pizza, things get even more complicated. In order to bake them, you need to let the dough rise first, and it has to be in a warm place. Prison cells are generally very damp, so the only suitable source of heat for dough turns out to be the TV set. You have to place the bowl with the dough on top of it and wait a few hours. But it can get worse. At times, if the warden is playing tough, the ingredients for the dough itself might be lacking. One former prisoner recalls grinding the bread offered by the prison to extract something close enough to flour.
We can definitely learn something from all these stories. As the book editor Matteo Guidi put it, they raise consciousness about prison conditions but also about our approach to food in society. Cooking is overinflated in the modern world, while in prison you are forced to get back to the basics. Inmates understand the importance of sparing anything to prepare a decent meal and, most importantly, they appreciate the worth of eating together. Most male prisoners still can't cook, so every unit has hardly more than one cook every four cells or so: this fosters conviviality almost by necessity, since inmates are allowed to gather in the cook's cell for mealtime. This helps them find a purpose in something otherwise as ordinary as cooking. "I used to cook and eat just to feed my body," says Musumeci. "Now I cook and eat to keep existing."