As many families across the country begin the process of preparing their favorite dishes for their Thanksgiving feasts, approximately 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. are also looking forward to what is usually one of the best meals of the year for them.
One of those is Federal Prisoner #57005-177: Keith Alan Raniere, the former Vanguard of the NXIVM cult, who will be celebrating his second consecutive Thanksgiving at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, NY.
Having spent a couple of my own Thanksgivings at MDC, I have a pretty good sense of what Keith and his fellow 1,600 inmates will be chowing down there on Thursday.
While some federal prisons actually serve more traditional Thanksgiving meals (e.g., turkey, stuffing, cranberries, pies, etc.), MDC usually provides each inmate with an individual Cornish game hen, mashed potatoes, corn, and some sort of “special desert”.
So, while Keith won’t be choosing between a drumstick or all-white meat on Thursday, he will be getting a meal that is substantially better than what he eats every other day.
In addition, he’ll also be getting a day off from his usual work assignment if he, in fact, still has one (Once prisoners at MDC go from “pre-trial” status to “pre-sentence” status, they are less likely to be given work assignments that require them to leave their assigned unit).
So, all in all, Thursday will be a relatively good day for Keith.
Sure, he won’t have even a second outside to enjoy the crisp air of autumn but he’ll be able to sleep in – and have what will likely be one of the two or three best meals he’s had in the past year (Traditionally, Christmas and July 4th are also “good meal days” at MDC).
By next Thanksgiving, Keith will most likely be at a maximum-security prison somewhere in the Northeast (I’m guessing Allentown unless he ends up going to Fort Devens for a while to have his injured wrist operated on).
Prison Menus Are Generally Unhealthy & Non-Nutritious
Every prison and jail in the U.S. is required to serve enough food to ensure that its prisoners are able to receive the recommended minimum caloric intake per day.
For most male prisoners, that’s somewhere in the 2,600-2,800 range.
The fact that some of the food that’s offered may be past its “use-by-date” or otherwise inedible is not taken into account in the counting of calories.
That barely unfrozen chocolate-covered donut that constitutes breakfast on most Saturdays still counts for 300 calories whether you eat it or not.
And that “Mystery Meat” concoction that’s served at least one night per week counts as another 600 calories whether you choose to even go to dinner that night or not.
While I was there, it was not unusual for MDC to serve food that had arrived in boxes marked “Not For Human Consumption” (We had guys who worked in the kitchen who would tip us off whenever that happened – and we simply avoided those meals altogether).
Foods that were past their “use-by-date” were usually consumed without any questions or even any grumbling.
And the possibility of finding rodent residue in any given meal was just accepted as “normal”.
It’s All About the Cost
Incarcerating people is expensive – especially when you have 2.3 million of them behind bars on any given day.
And cooking three meals per day for hundreds or thousands of guys takes a great deal of planning.
Estimates vary – but it’s safe to assume that the out-of-pocket costs for housing prisoners are at least $80 billion – or about $37,000 per year per prisoner — in the U.S.
So, prison administrators have to be very cost-conscious – especially when they’re dealing with items like food costs rather than more important things like staffing levels and security.
Federal prisons spend about $3.00/day to feed each of their 200,000+ inmates.
Most families in the U.S. spend about three times that amount on food.
So, the fact that many non-nutritious and inedible meals are served in federal prisons is hardly surprising.
Suffice to say that were it not for the fact that many prisoners have learned how to create decent meals from items they can obtain from the prison Commissary, there would be many more riots in prisons and jails throughout the U.S.
Menus in Federal Prison Are Boring & Unhealthy
The Bureau of Prisons establishes a national menu for all its prisons that is based on a 5-week cycle.
Here are the BOP’s weekly menus for 2018.
Although the meals don’t sound all that bad, the actual ingredients that are used make many of them inedible.
For example, “Beef Tacos” certainly sounds like an OK meal.
But when you see the “beef” (if that’s what it actually is) floating in a sea of melted fat – and when the taco shells are either moldy or stale – you immediately go to your locker to see what Commissary food you have on hand.
And those “scrambled eggs” that are served at least twice per week are not exactly what your Mom used to whip up for your breakfast. Instead, they are dry and tasteless – and, once again, force you to forage through your locker for Commissary food.
Likewise, the “Chicken Fajitas” that use boiled chicken that was recycled from the prior day’s lunch. A great idea except for the fact that the chicken is totally tasteless and almost impossible to chew.
Without Commissary Food Many Prisoners Would Skip Meals
While many outsiders might think of Commissary food as “treats”, in reality, many prisoners might starve without it.
Sure, it’s over-priced – and very limited in terms of choices – but it beats the hell out of many regular meal offerings.
The most popular Commissary item at every prison is “macks”.
Macks are tinfoil packets of ground mackerel – which may not sound very appetizing but which are actually fairly nutritious and cheap (They were $1.00 per packet when I was at MDC but they now cost $1.45).
More importantly, macks also serve as currency in terms of buying services or other things from other inmates (Example: Another inmate will wash and fold your clothes for 2-3 macks per week).
Macks are edible for up to 3-years – which means that in prison there are two types of macks: “eating macks” and the past-eat-by-date “money macks”. “Money macks” are generally worth 75% of “eating macks”.
State & County Prisons Are Even Worse
As bad as federal prisons are in terms of food, state and county prisons are even worse.
A recent study found that most states spend less than $2.50/day per prisoner on prison meals.
But the title for “Lowest Cost Prison Meals” goes to the infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
First, he reduced the number of meals being served from 3 per day to 2 per day.
Next, he eliminated all meat-based dishes from the menu – and replaced them with soy-based dishes.
Then, he started serving peanut-and-butter jelly sandwiches as a regular lunch or dinner meal.
Eventually, he got the cost down to an average of $.56 per meal (Some of the meals he served actually cost as little as $.15).
So, as it turns out, the Vanguard really does have some things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
For one, he’s at MDC and not in Maricopa County.
And two, he’ll have his own little Cornish game hen to devour on Thursday.