Most every day revolves around the Chow Hall (a/k/a Mainline or Food Services) in one way or another.  Chow gets called, you wait on a long line, have slop poured onto a tray.  Next.  In fact, you’ll discover that most inmates live from meal-to-meal, merely passing the time in between.  Each prison is required to follow the National Menu, which you might think would bring some kind of uniformity.  However, the quality varies greatly from prison-to-prison, depending on such factors as the (i) capabilities of the CO Food Service Supervisor, (ii) the talent of inmate cooks and (iii) the amount of food Chow Hall COs allow to fly out the door to be sold on the compound, or being stolen by the Food Service Corrections Officers themselves.

Each quarter, or so, the BOP puts out a National Menu and, frankly, from the looks of it. you’d think the food isn’t half bad.  The problem is, just calling food a certain name doesn’t necessarily make it so.  Moreover, prisons manage to find some of the lowest quality food you can imagine.  Don’t believe me?  Well, there’s at least one indictment out there, against a prison supplier in 2019, accused of adding cow hearts, and God knows what else, to his food as fillers.  The Officer of Inspector General came to the same conclusion, in a 2020 report exposing the fact that “substandard food products” are often sold to and served by the BOP, “potentially endangering the health and wellbeing of both inmates and staff.” 

Any closeout or food near (or just past) expiration is quickly purchased at deep discount.  I’ve even seen food labeled “not fit for human consumption.”  Fruits and vegetables are mostly from a can and watered down, while anything fresh is typically over or under ripe, and iceberg lettuce by itself is deemed a salad.  Portion sizes are served by pre-measured spoons, depending on what’s served, and you all get the same amount regardless of whether you’re 5’2” and weigh 140 or 6’4” and 325.  It can therefore be helpful to know or pay off servers, so you don’t leave the Chow Hall hungry.

All eating ware is made from plastic.  Cups, forks, spoons (no knives, even in a Camp), and 5-compartment trays, although just 3 or 4 are filled in at most meals.  Once you’re done, you drop it off at the dishwashing window where a large conveyor-like machine cleans with 95% efficiency.  It’s therefore always a good idea to check trays and utensils before eating to ensure they’re not dirty.     

Breakfast is supposed to be at 6:00 am sharp and stay open for an hour.  In reality, it’s called whenever the Chow Hall CO gets around to it (5:50, 6:30, etc.) and stays open about 15 minutes.  Many people, therefore, miss breakfast either on purpose or because they never really had a chance.

As for lunch, it varies greatly between a Camp as compared to a higher security prison with more restrictive movement.  At a Camp, you’ll be doing “whatever” in the morning (on a job, working out at Rec or in Education), lunch will be called around 10:45 am, and you can eat anytime during a 40-minute, or so, window.  At higher security locations, you’ll return to your Unit at 10:30 am and then wait as each Unit is called to the Chow Hall individually beginning around 11:00 am (the better rated from Inspection, the earlier you go).  You eat in shifts because the Chow Hall isn’t big enough to feed everyone at the same time.  The benefit of going early is getting on with your day, whether it’s time in Rec, at Education, or whatever.  It may not seem like a big deal reading this, but it certainly is when you’re in the moment.  Senior administrative staff is also supposed to rotate attendance and make themselves generally available at Chow Hall since you’ll rarely see people like the Warden, AW or Captain walking the compound.  Some prisons do it religiously.  At others, like Miami Camp, it’s hardly done at all.  

The same process applies for dinner and occurs sometime after 4 pm count, usually between 4:30-5:00 pm.  You’ll have been locked down for count regardless (even at a Camp) and go to dinner only when released.  While seats are not technically assigned, inmates at Mediums and Pens are very particular about where they sit and who they sit with.  You’ll notice they eat together in those cars I mentioned.  Feel things out where you are.  You’ll also notice people knocking on the table when they sit down and get up, which is also more of a “thing” in higher security prisons.  It’s a symbol of respect and courtesy.  Just be aware of your surroundings and follow what other people do. 

When you leave the Chow Hall, there is another big difference between Camps and higher security prisons.  At Camps, you generally won’t be bothered if you take food out with you.  In fact, in Miami we were allowed to bring our bowl and take food “to go” on most days.  At other locations, though, officers are policing the exit and will even pat you down, confiscating something as small as an apple or slice of bread.  Nothing leaves the Chow Hall.  Even, at the end of a meal when there’s tons of leftovers.  COs would rather throw it out than offer seconds.   

Some people avoid the line at the Chow Hall by paying an inmate kitchen worker to have everything set out and waiting when they arrive.  We didn’t have that at Miami, but several people I met from Coleman enjoyed that service almost every day.  Other people, moreover, try to avoid the Chow Hall altogether.  Kitchen workers sneak out food, wrapped in cellophane and strapped to their bodies after each shift.  They typically have steady customers but will also sell to anyone when they have extra.  It could be anything, including things you’ve never seen served at mealtime.  Fresh vegetables, sour cream, cakes, pies, fried chicken, whatever they can get their hands on.  It’s totally worth the price since food, quite often, is our only true comfort.     

Holidays are a big deal in prison because we get served special meals.  While this can vary greatly from prison-to-prison, it’s always a lot better than the usual and gives us something to look forward to.  Big portions, a different entre’ and a unique desert, helps to break up the monotony and brighten your day.  It could be steak or an extra-large piece of chicken or turkey, combined with stuffing or some exotic vegetable plus a double portion of desert, like watermelon and cheesecake, for example.  Then again, sometimes they just scavenge the quarter chicken from Thursday’s meal (chicken on the bone, one of our favorites) and add a special desert, while substituting in something crappy on Thursday.  They can get away with things like that at a Camp and, perhaps, even a Low, but not at a Medium or Pen where inmates are organized and have less to lose.  They’ll go to war over a good meal.

There is a separate serving area for “common fare” (the prison term for kosher and hallal meals) but you need to get on the same line as everyone else regardless.  While it’s relatively easy to get on the common fare meal plan, you may only choose one or the other – common fare or mainline.  You might get away with switching back and forth between the two for a while, but it will eventually catch up with you and, once you get caught, you’ll be kicked off common fare and perhaps get a shot.