I am a vegan. Nineteen years deep into a lifelong commitment to avoid eating anything from an animal. In following this moral code I have found myself at protests turned riots, donning cow costumes at meat processing conventions, and creeping into slaughterhouses in complete darkness to film the inhumane treatment of animals. When I was arrested in 1998 and faced “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” (AETA) charges that could have put me in prison for 82 years, I chose an underground life over a potential life sentence. I became a fugitive on the run from the FBI until 2005, when I was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for releasing thousands of minks from fur farms.
While living on the lam I put as much effort into vegan dining as the FBI did into catching me. I ate seitan marinated in sesame ginger sauce and roasted red pepper hummus on sprouted grain pizza crust. I double-fisted dried strawberries and malted carob balls, drank rice shakes every morning and sipped kombucha every night. Agave nectar was my table sugar, and organic carrot-juice my wine.
Once I was thrown into a prison cell, this comfortable reality instantly evaporated. Three times a day, the slot on my cell door opened, delivering trays piled with every variety of animal flesh and byproduct. The trace amounts of iceberg lettuce barely pushed my caloric intake into the double digits. I launched a nightly letter-writing campaign, targeting anyone with influence. Everyone from the prison captain, to the kitchen manager, to Congressperson Barbara Boxer received my letters. My demands were simple: No meat, dairy, or eggs. In this one-sided negotiation process, leverage was in short supply.
After two years and seven prisons, I learned a thing or three about how to get meat-free food in prison. Here’s my playbook for imprisoned vegans who refuse to compromise.
Move #1: The Phone Assault
Mob action phone calls work. In prison protests, what is important is not the actual threat, but the perceived threat. A tidal wave of friends and family soliciting the prison with their phone calls in outrage over a legally actionable denial of edible food suddenly recasts you as an inmate with power, influence, and connections. Suddenly, the world is watching. An incentive to comply is borne through averting a lawsuit, or perhaps even an angry mob storming the prison lobby. After dozens of activists hammered a prison where I was detained in Wisconsin, the captain was quoted as saying, “cooking vegetables is easier than hosing down rioters in the parking lot.”
Move #2: Find God
Prisons tend to recognize special diets by way of allergies or religious beliefs. Many faiths advocate fasting as a technique of spiritual enlightenment, bringing one closer to God. Twelve days without a full meal in a prison that only recognized vegan food if it was religiously motivated, and God quickly earned a central role in my life. After 28 years of atheism, I became a born again some-vegetarian-religion-or-another kind of inmate. Claiming an allergy to meat, dairy, and eggs is a tough sell. I've tried, but after many failed attempts, I think the best option is a divine conversion to the Seventh Day Adventist, Buddhist, Krishna, or other verifiably vegetarian faith.
Move #3: Hunger Strike
The rough mathematical basis for this tactic is outlined in the following equation, expressed through the mind of a cop: Hunger striking prisoner = dead prisoner = legal consequences times the concern of public outcry and media attention, squared by the inability to pay an out of court wrongful death settlement.
Move #4: Commissary
The prison store is the abusive partner that you are forced to live with because you have nowhere else to go. The vegan selection in the commissary of the average prison mirrors the vegan selection at an average Nebraska truck stop. Duplex cookies, peanuts, chili ramen, trail mix, and Fritos all make up what I call, “the lowest common denominators of veganism.”
Move #5: Trade with Inmates
Because the prison world is the opposite of anything sane or healthy, the most processed non-foods are the ones most coveted by convicts. Even the most accommodating prison will never really get it 100 percent right, and those non-vegan items that will occasionally arrive on your tray give you incredible bargaining power over other inmates. When in possession of non-vegan fare, I would launch the bargaining process by shouting, “I have cake for apples!” and watch the bidding war erupt. When it’s over, you'll probably get four apples for that single serving of cake.
Move #6: Black Market
The prison black market is huge, and its largest segment is food. In the prison economy, stamps are money, and for the right price, any food item can be stolen from the kitchen and delivered to your cell. Imagine cases of Boca burgers, or vegan pumpkin pies made-to-order.
Here is a rough price list based on my experiences:
- One five-pound bag of oatmeal (cost: 10 stamps)
- One four-pack of tofu (12 stamps)
- One bag of just-add-water soy meat (12 stamps)
In two years of trial and error, I had gone from starving and desperate to well fed and gluttonous. They said it couldn’t be done, but I managed to remain strictly vegan in prison. The day of my release, I walked outside the prison gates with a hefty bag of mail and into the arms of the six friends who arrived to take me home. The cake that they had baked, adorned with the words “Happy Freedom” was a nice gesture, but I reached right past it for the salad.
More vegans stuff: