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First Days in the Texas Prison System – Part 3

In Part 2 we stopped at describing the living conditions in the Gurney Unit, which are basically the same as those at any of the intake units built during the prison expansion of the '80s when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (then the TDC) built in the "pod" style.

In this feature we will discuss the meals.

The food in the TDCJ prisons is actually better than in the privately run prisons such as those run by CCA (Mineral Wells, Dawson, etc.) but is still well away from the food served at even the worst of restaurants.

Prisoners begin being summoned by pod number for breakfast at around 4:00 a.m., sometimes earlier and sometimes later. The offenders are allowed to leave in groups and march to the mess hall in a line, often required to do so with their hands behind their backs although that requirement varies depending on what guard is watching. Periodically a prisoner is removed from the line and search, then allowed to continue on their way. Some prisoners are orally defiant, but this only results in them  being detained longer and can result in the strip search for which "Buck Naked Gurney" is famous, the prisoner being required to strip naked outside in front of the other prisoners although sometimes the guards will move the prisoners to a small enclosure built for this purpose. After the search, and assuming nothing is found, the prisoner is allowed to continue on their way.

The procedure for each meal is the same, although the menu varies considerably between the meal times, the day of the week, and the time of the year.

Breakfast at Gurney usually includes biscuits, some form of eggs or other protein, and generic cereal, along with a packet of artificial sweetener (real sugar isn't given for fear it will be used to make "hooch"). The tables contain a pitcher of water and then powdered mile or, occasionally, juice. Coffee of a sort is also available in urns.

The lunch and dinner menus vary, but often includes pork, since there is a pig farm, and prison raised vegetables. During some times of the year raw onion is given as a vegetable and the smell pervades the mess hall.

The men are given about 15-20 minutes to eat, sometimes more and sometimes less, and are then screamed at by the guards until they empty their trays and leave. Unfortunately, some of the older inmates (many with no or few teeth) take longer to eat and there are reports  that some of the guards make fun of them for their age and slowness. While this is against the rules, the supervisors turn a blind eye.

After the meal the prisoners are escorted back to their pod where the wait begins again.

Occasionally a unit goes on lock down and the prisoners are then served "Johnny Sacks" in their room. The exact ingredients in the Johnny Sacks vary, but usually include a sandwich, a packet of mustard, sometimes chips and occasionally a piece of fruit.

While some inmates choose to skip meals and eat what they get from the commissary, others will go to chow just to take their trays and divide it up among other inmates.

Recently, the budgetary crisis caused the prison system to decide to go to two meals a day on the weekends. The officials and the press refer to it as "brunch", like the food is better but in reality it is just another example of Texas's ambivalence toward the people it send to prison, cutting a meal to save money rather than maintaining the budget or cutting in another area.

We here at TPN predict that it is a matter of time until these type of cuts produce problems in the prison, wither it be fights, riots, or just a lawsuit. Many commenters on most of the online newspapers are quick to point out that "If the prisoners don't like it then they shouldn't commit crimes to be sent to prison", which show the level of ignorance and the lack of empathy that now pervades society.

Cutting a meal from a prisoner has a much greater psychological effect that it would if it were just a matter of someone in "the world" choosing to skip a meal. The food is bad enough, and rarely do the prisoners get enough to quench their hunger instead barely getting enough to meet the nutritional requirements mandated by law.  One of the few things that a prisoner has to look forward to during the day is the next meal, as dismal as it is, and cutting that is a tremendous psychological blow.

In addition, this move by TDCJ presumably will also allow the private prisons to cut back on the amount of food they serve, increasing their profit margins even more. As it is, prisoners at the CCC run facilities often complain about the sub-standard food, the foreign objects in meals (staples in the beans for instance) and the way that the companies add fillers like corn starch to food such as beans to make them thicker and look like they are going farther where in reality they provide no additional nutrients.

So much for constitutional rights when it interferes with corporate profits and political donations.

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