What It’s Like to Celebrate Thanksgiving in a High-Security Prison
Even in facilities where the threat of violence is the norm, there are days when no one is plotting against anyone else. Thanksgiving is one of them.
Photo via Flickr user Niko Pettersen
I live behind a series of walls, gun towers, and electric fences deep in the mountains of West Virginia at the United States Penitentiary, Hazelton, a.k.a. "Misery Mountain." My conviction for armed bank robbery in 2002 has sent me through some of the most violent pens in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In the 13-plus years that I've been incarcerated, not much has changed behind the barriers that define my existence during what should be the best years of my life.
I am now in my fourth federal prison. At each sport, I left via the hole. At Federal Correctional Institution, Gilmer, a medium-security joint in West Virginia I wore out my welcome after supplying the inmates with weed and tobacco. At USP Pollack, in the swamps of Louisiana, I left with some broken ribs courtesy of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; at USP Canaan, in bumfuck Pennsyvalnia, I was wheeled out on a stretcher with eight stab wounds thanks to a confrontation with Mexican gangsters.
So I've seen a few prisons, enough to know that each has its trade-offs. The lower-security ones definitely have their advantages, especially on Thanksgiving.
"At FCI Florence [in Colorado], they feed you like a king," a guy named Jon B once told me. Jon B is a New York native who finished his 15-year bid out in Colorado at a medium facility. "When I got my fully-loaded tray, I thought to myself that 'club fed' wasn't just a myth. The trays were glutted with damn near half a turkey. Not the processed shit they feed you in the [higher-security] pen. I'm talking about the real deal. And pecan pie. Fucking real pecan pie. I bought seven slices of the shit."
Hazelton is a bit more relaxed than other high-security pens. A shank doesn't have to be included alongside your everyday attire and you don't have to scope out the cell unit for danger every time you leave the shower. But the pen is still the pen. Regardless of where you are, there's no way to call a time out and catch your bearings when shit does pop off.
That being said, we do have our days when everyone isn't plotting against you. Thanksgiving is one of them. We celebrate Christmas and New Year's here in prison, too. It marks the year winding down, another notch on the wall as we make our way closer to getting out or getting buried (for those doing life sentences).
The vibe inside the cell units is lighter on Thanksgiving, the tension not so thick.
On Thanksgiving, we come out of our cells with a little less trepidation towards our neighbors. I might hear a couple "Happy Thanksgivings" here and there as I head to the computer to check my emails. If I have any messages, I'll respond in kind and send out my holiday greetings to the world before I head over to use the phone. Holidays are pretty much the only time when you know loved ones are waiting on your call. The communication is planned days prior so everyone in the family can make sure they're together in one place when you dial in. The phone will get passed around to aunts and uncles and talking to them actually reminds me of what it feels like to be human and feel loved.
The vibe inside the cell units is lighter on Thanksgiving, the tension not so thick. The politics of the pound fall into the background as the excitement over the calls home and day's football games nears. Even the correctional officers get into the giving spirit; offenses that would typically merit a trip to the hole are swept under the rug for the day.
From 9:45 AM to 11, we're all locked in our cells until the COs finish a holiday count. It's one of those physical reminders to let us know that we remain just a number in the system and we aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Then, once the doors are unlocked, the festivities begin.
The units start getting called to chow around noon. There are 12 units at Hazleton, and each one holds 128 of the country's finest criminals. If your unit gets called last, you might not be eating until the afternoon. Prisoners get impatient and tempers can rise. This might cause some issues now and then at the chow hall, a place where everything is self-segregated. The blacks wait in the food line on the right, the Hispanics and whites on the left. Even though my best friend is a white dude from Boston, I wouldn't dare sit at his table. Holiday or not, a violation of penitentiary etiquette is a violation.
When we finally make our way through the line, we're offered turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and all the fixings—just like on the outside. But everything that mom makes best is served up nice and cold on a Styrofoam tray. The turkey is dryer than California and the stuffing is hard enough to be used as a weapon.
You can find cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, but those items aren't offered on the chow hall menu. To get your hands on these delicacies, they have to be smuggled into the units and sold through the prison black markets. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have a good prison job or receive money from home, these items are the real Thanksgiving meal. Anything that isn't bolted down will be smuggled out of the chow hall. Not everyone drinks, gets high, or gambles on Thanksgiving, but we all eat. This makes the day a dream come true for any kitchen hustler. They begin taking orders for pies days ahead of time, knowing cons like me will pay whatever they want to charge for the sweets.
The kitchen smugglers use the same philosophy as the drug cartels: Throw as many mules as you can at the border crossing—in our case, the exit from the chow hall—and hope that at least half make it through. The food mules use ACE bandage wraps to secure the food around their stomachs and backs for their trip back to the cell units. If it's cold out, they can use their jacket to hide the fact that they just went from being a skinny, 160-pound kid to looking like a guy with a respectable gut and a humpback.
There are usually five or six guards standing outside the chow hall as you exit. After dealing with the count and the increasingly turbulent cafeteria queues, the guards' forgiving Thanksgiving spirit will have dried up and they become as eager to make a big pie bust as a DEA agent looking for cocaine at the border. The grins go up as soon as they hit that first patch of food. Moments later it's humiliation time as they make the conspicuous con undo his strap and dump his smuggled load of goods on the floor. You can see the heartbreak on the mule's face as fantasies of a Thanksgiving payday get thrown in the trash.
Cranberry sauce is always in high demand. In the right hands, the stuff can be turned into the best homemade hooch we'll get all year.
As a result, many smugglers have learned to use the tried and true method of securing their wares in a place where a pat search won't find anything: right under the balls.
To do it right, food thieves wear both a pair of tight thermal underwear and a pair of briefs under their khakis, then pack the contraband in between the layers. With any luck, the bread bags that hold the cranberry goo or mushy pie won't burst. No one's spending good money on a holiday pube pie, even in prison.
Anything and everything that makes it into the kitchen is potentially lucrative to a chow-hall hustler, though cranberry sauce is always in high demand. In the right hands, the stuff can be turned into the best homemade hooch we'll get all year. Compared to the normal rotgut made from ingredients that could kill a horse, we get to drink booze that's only slightly worse than vomit. This foul brew might sound bad, but to us it's the thing that makes Thanksgiving Thanksgiving.
It's not uncommon to see hardened convicts stumbling around before passing out on a table just like your favorite uncle Eddie used to. Convicts with livers shot to shit from years of ingesting near-toxic brew start drinking at the crack of dawn. I've literally seen half my unit wasted before 9 AM on past Thanksgivings.
"Man, I count down the days waiting for this shit," says Chuck, a 40-something Boston native serving a life sentence for knocking off armored trucks. "Once I get [the alcohol], I set up my chair right in front of the TV for the games and the action."
The action he's talking about is prison-specific entertainment, though—drunken brawls, fights over smuggled pies, arguments over the last cups off cranberry sauce liquor. When it's discovered that your drinking buddy hid a quart to drink later by himself, things can get ugly.
I'm surrounded by men from all walks of life, from cartel leaders to brutal murderers. None of them are guests I'd ever consider bringing home to enjoy mom's home cooking. In here, though, they're the family that I sit around the table with to celebrate the holidays.
Next year I'll be transferred to a medium-security prison where most of the violence and prison politics will be left behind. Once I'm there, they will start the paperwork to send me to a halfway house back in Pittsburgh. After almost 15 years of incarceration, I will be home to celebrate the holidays with my family for 2017. After that, I'll never eat a mushy pie that touched a crotch again.
- Vice Blog