The US prison system is no picnic. For starters, it's massive: Despite the fact that the US accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, it hosts 25 percent of its prisoners. And the Vera Institute of Justice recently argued that our correctional institutions have "become vast warehouses made up primarily of people too poor to post bail or too ill with mental health or drug problems to adequately care for themselves." The NAACP also reports that despite the massive cost to taxpayers (some $70 billion annually), prison shows little signs of actually rehabilitating anyone, with some two-thirds of prisoners reoffending in their lifetime.
Top that in the last year alone, there have been multiple incidents wherein prison food has been found to be served by corrupt staff members with malicious intent, infested with maggots, and tainted with rat poison, and it's fair to say that prison is not a place where most people want to be. Did we mention that gastrointestinal disease spreads quickly in close quarters?
Despite all this, Eastern State Penitentiary's Prison Food Weekend, taking place this weekend (June 6 and 7), remains a popular attraction for visitors who are eager to taste the slop found on the plates of our nation's felons. And this year, the focus is on Nutraloaf and chi chi.
As Delco News Network explains, Nutraloaf is the "'food product' issued as punishment in many American prisons." Each state has their own version of what goes into Nutraloaf, but it can be anything from a mashed-up stump of non-dairy cheese and raisins to carrots blended with bread, "mechanically separated poultry," and kidney beans. The concoction has been the cause for numerous lawsuits and is currently on suspension in Vermont, where prisoners went to court over being served the repulsive pseudo-meatloaf.
Regardless, Prison Food Weekend still brings in crowds eager to try assorted iterations of the nasty thing, five of which—based on their real recipes—will be offered this year by Freestyle BBQ, a catering company owned by correctional officer John Freeman. Feast on Idaho's "breakfast Nutraloaf," which pulverizes cereal, milk, toast, and orange juice and bakes them into a single edible entity. Or maybe you'd prefer California's, which integrates raw cabbage and chili powder.
But before we forget, there will also be chi chi, the flipside of cruel and unusual Nutraloaf. Think of chi chi as what MacGyver would make with ingredients sourced solely from prison vending machines, or perhaps even the commissary, should he be gifted a few bucks by a family member. Lil Wayne, for example, made his with crushed up ramen noodles mixed with Doritos. WDRB describes it thusly: "Chi chi recipes vary, but commonly include ramen noodles, chips or cheese curls, meat snacks, and sugar."
Even bigger plus: the chi chi will be prepared by Chris (last name withheld), a former inmate from SCI Graterford, the prison that took Eastern State Penitentiary's place after it closed in 1971. Chris makes his in a plastic bag, cooked in water that is boiled on a "stinger," a "crude immersion heater made from the end of an extension cord wrapped around nail clippers," he tells Philly.com. Although some versions of chi chi have just two or three ingredients, Chris's recipe combines ramen noodles, cheese curls, processed meats, barbecue sauce, honey, pickles, chili, and chili powder.
Salty, sure. But still, one would guess, a hell of a lot better than Nutraloaf.
For just $14 for adults (just $10 for students and children!), you, too, can play dress-up with the sad meals that appear day after day on the the incarcerated. But that's only a steal when you can go back to maggot-free arugula and burrata salads as soon as you walk out the door.