Wisconsin Books to Prisoners creates a cookbook by and for incarcerated people

Camy Matthay discusses “Canteen Cuisine,” which combines recipes with the stark realities of food in the prison system.

Camy Matthay discusses “Canteen Cuisine,” which combines recipes with the stark realities of food in the prison system.

Wisconsin Books To Prisoners occasionally creates publications of its own, on top of the tens of thousands of books the Madison-based nonprofit has sent to incarcerated people around the state since 2006. Co-founder Camy Matthay and her fellow volunteers have compiled surprisingly dense, zine-style primers on chess, crocheting, and drawing, for instance, after hearing from prisoners who couldn’t quite find what they were looking for on those subjects. The organization has also presented shows of artwork by incarcerated people, and collaborated with Milwaukee’s Justseeds art collective in 2009 to protest a Wisconsin Department of Corrections ban on Books To Prisoners shipments. Wisconsin Books To Prisoners’ latest project, a book called Canteen Cuisine, uses food to open up a window into the systematic dehumanization of prison life.

The project got started as Wisconsin Books To Prisoners volunteers wondered aloud about the frequent requests they received for cookbooks. The core of Canteen Cuisine brings together 45 recipes from people incarcerated around Wisconsin, all of them born of or tailored to the incredibly limited food supply and makeshift cooking tools. If incarcerated people want to make food for themselves to vary their diets, they have to buy overpriced ingredients from for-profit prison canteens or swipe them from cafeterias, risking solitary confinement and other punishment. They cook not with anything resembling a real kitchen, but with sporks, garbage bags, microwaves (if they’re lucky), and a frightfully dangerous technique of using stripped electrical wire to boil water, known as the “stinger.”

Canteen Cuisine also has plenty to say to those of us not incarcerated. The book explains the poor nutritional value of the Wisconsin DOC’s food offerings, both through anecdotes and through analyses by Laura Danner, a current grad student at the Medical College of Wisconsin who got involved with Wisconsin Books to Prisoners while pursuing undergraduate work in nutritional science at UW-Milwaukee. Danner found very little evidence of prisoners getting access to fresh vegetables, and even received anecdotes about a meal whose entire vegetable component was three baby carrots. The book also gets into how difficult it is for prisoners to afford food of their own choosing, unless someone on the outside is putting money in their accounts: Those with jobs usually make pennies per hour, and from these meager earnings the state deducts fees that, according to Matthay, can sometimes rise to 80 percent of their wages. Some recipes come with economic breakdowns to drive home the point: An anonymous prisoner’s recipe for tuna wraps, the book notes, adds up to “136 hours of labor at the 12¢/hour pay rate.”

Excerpt from “Canteen Cuisine.”

Excerpt from “Canteen Cuisine.”

Combined with the book’s wealth of context, the recipes—from the peanut-crusted “Sport Enthusiast Faux Pas Chicken Fingers”  to “T.J.’s Sweet and Spicy Noodle Bowl” (“Please do not eat out of boredom,” writes that recipe’s author, Trevor Joel Ahrens at Columbia Correctional Institution) to the anonymously submitted “Sugar Coma Cookie Cake”—are a moving reminder that the desire for joy, variety, and human connection endures even in the degrading circumstances that mass incarceration creates. Canteen Cuisine is hardly the first cookbook by or for prisoners, and in fact it includes a back-cover quotation from Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook, by the late Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy: “This book won’t make you a better cook, but it might make you a better person. Because in a world where prisoners are treated like animals, we made our experiences there feel more human by how we prepared our food.”

Wisconsin Books To Prisoners will hold a book release party on October 16 at the Social Justice Center on Willy Street, where it shares space with the nationally focused LGBT Books To Prisoners. The event will feature samples of some of the recipes, and of the infamous “prison loaf” still served in many institutions today. Several formerly incarcerated people will talk about the problems of nutrition in prison, and Talib Akbar, who became a vocal advocate against solitary confinement after his incarceration at Boscobel’s Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, will be bringing a replica of a solitary-confinement cell. Ahead of the book’s publication, Matthay spoke with Tone Madison about the process of creating Canteen Cuisine and what she hopes to communicate to two different groups of readers.

Tone Madison: What were your bigger goals in publishing Canteen Cuisine?

Camy Matthay: Well, one was to give prisoners a voice… We created a postcard to send into prisoners to solicit [recipes]. On the original postcard, we had sort of assumed prisoners would want to remain anonymous, so we said, “We’d only use your first name, or write ‘Anonymous’ if that’s your preference.” And we got a very interesting letter back from a guy named Harlan Richards, who contributed some recipes and some text, and actually was one of the prisoners who did fact verification for us. He wrote a strong letter expressing that he wanted his full name in the book, and felt that it was really important that we do that for anyone who submitted, because he wants to be more than a number. He really wants to be recognized. He says the DOC does too much to just try to erase their identities. So we re-created the postcard, and I would say the majority of prisoners asked to be identified. That kind of confirmed: Yes, people who are incarcerated are very eager to express themselves and be recognized as individuals. 

We had two audiences. We had what we wanted to do for prisoners—and we had requests from prisoners, I think two months after we got postcards into the prisons here, we got requests from prisoners who were not chefs who wanted copies of the book. It was clear that there was a real interest in the recipes. We also wanted to do some public education and raise awareness about prison conditions in Wisconsin in general. [And] food is something we all can relate to.

Tone Madison: The book addresses the phenomenon of the “prison loaf,” and I was wondering about how you thought through the presentation of that. Usually when people discuss it, it’s in a very sensationalized way—”look how funny and gross this is”—that doesn’t really focus on the fact that it’s being fed to actual people and is degrading. Did you want to push back on that kind of trivializing approach?

Camy Matthay.

Camy Matthay.

Camy Matthay: I did read that some people feel that monotony in a diet is cruel and unusual punishment. There were people that I’d read online that had addressed that—that serving something that’s bland and tastes terrible, over and over again, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. So in some states, it has been banned. I found out probably by reading the Wisconsin State Journal that David Clarke, the notorious [former Milwaukee County] sheriff, it was one of his favorite methods of punishing prisoners who didn’t return a tray or who threw food or whatever. I don’t know if Wisconsin has its own recipe. I had the impression, based on people I’ve talked to who’ve been in prison in Wisconsin and have been served that, that it was just a meal put in a blender…

Tone Madison: Harlan Richards, a prisoner at Stanley Correctional Institution, wrote a section of the book that gets into some recent history on prison canteens in Wisconsin, saying that they were pretty good until 2015, when new private contractors came into the picture. That also ties the food problem in to this pervasive issue of prison profiteering.

Camy Matthay: What you see in prison is kind of what you see on the outside. People growing up in food deserts, and their appetites for meals are shaped early on in life. So if your main meals are coming from a gas station, by the time you’re an adult, this is the food you have a preference for, so it’s a problem. Harlan is the one that I quote saying: “Here’s the problem, most people in prison do not want to eat healthy, nutritious food. They want meat, meat, meat, and junk food.” Every prison used to have a garden that employed people, people were getting training. 

Wisconsin Books To Prisoners has created several of its own zines on various subjects, in addition to sending copies of existing books to incarcerated people.

Wisconsin Books To Prisoners has created several of its own zines on various subjects, in addition to sending copies of existing books to incarcerated people.

Tone Madison: It’s also hard to ignore the connections between food and the poor quality of health care in prisons. 

Camy Matthay: My understanding is that there are two nutritionists employed for 23,000 people [in Wisconsin’s state prison system]. And technically, prisoners who have dietary restrictions are allowed to get special diets, but that doesn’t seem to be happening for many of them. 

One prisoner that’s a pen pal of mine, he went through pretty serious surgery recently and lost a lot of weight, and it was somebody that does make efforts to eat right and exercise. He just felt that he wasn’t getting enough protein to build back the muscle he had lost, and was taking hard-boiled eggs from the cafeteria back to his cell. All this could technically get somebody in trouble because it’s considered contraband. He was caught twice in a row for bringing eggs back and served three weeks in solitary confinement for that. 

[This is] something that goes on often in institutions. There was a guy that submitted a recipe, I think it was James Terry II, who said specifically that it was a recipe that doesn’t require cooking, and he said “This is particular for people in solitary confinement who don’t have access to a microwave.” He also talked about making four servings in solitary—I don’t know how this was managed, maybe for the hour they get out they can cook—but he said that if you have the luck to have a guard who’s sympathetic, you’re able to share your meals with somebody down the hallway. 

Excerpt from “Canteen Cuisine.”

Excerpt from “Canteen Cuisine.”

Tone Madison: What were the challenges of creating the nutritional and economic analyses of the recipes in the book? Prisons are notoriously opaque, so I’m wondering if the DOC was forthcoming with information at all? 

Camy Matthay: [Laura Danner] was able to talk to one of the nutritionists, who did answer some questions. Some they did not. She had the impression, of course, that they were extremely busy, so I think that limited the amount of time she had to pursue that. 

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