Image drawn by vegan prisoner Danielle Wolfe in Dickerson Detention Facility (2013)
A simul-post with Negotiation is Over! and my political/eco blog, The Rewild West.
Next month (April 2014) will be my eight-year Veganniversary. From 2010 through 2012, I served just under two years in Illinois prisons. Aside from a few accidents based on false information, I stayed vegan in County Jail, in Receiving (24-hour lockdown), for my 18 months in the high-minimum-security Jacksonville Correctional Center, and my three months in the medium-security “Disciplinary Prison,” Logan Correctional Center. You may be surprised to find that, overall, it wasn’t at all hard to be vegan, even in Midwestern-U.S. prisons!
Note that I used the caveat overall. Because at the beginning, it was physically outrageous. Dangerous, even. When my mother and I said our tearful goodbyes on the Henry County Jail steps, I was chubbier (on purpose) than I’d been since early puberty. That fine spring day, I weighed 183 pounds.
My two weeks in County Jail were . . . less than nourishing. I ate mostly white bread, peanut butter and jelly, dry cereal, mushy canned vegetables, and plain noodles. I didn’t know if they had any kind of vegan or even vegetarian tray. I didn’t even bother to ask. I was overwhelmed, scared, mentally/emotionally anguished. I just wanted to acclimate to my new environment before making waves. One of the worst things a new guy on the unit can do is show himself to be different. Especially in ways that are interpreted as weak in that environment. Those two weeks were unpleasant, but they were an absolute party (with a buffet!),compared to what followed.
What came next was probably the worst two weeks of my life. Every prisoner in Illinois has to go through “Receiving”, where they enter your information into the computer system, determine your security level and which prison they’ll ship you to, and where, I believe, they try to break your spirit by keeping everyone, from serial killer to joint-smoker, in conditions only found in a supermax. During my two weeks there, I got out of the cell one time, for a ten-minute shower. There’s a reason the food trays at Stateville Receiving are referred to as “Lunchables.” Consider: I gave my cellmate all my animal products, and hewas still hungry. I could barely sleep. Desperate for relief from the gnawing, churning ache of emptiness and hunger. They served lots of potatoes; yet they were undercooked to near inedibility. We couldn’t decide if they were supposed to be boiled potatoes or potato chips. When I mercifully made it, at last, to Jacksonville Correctional Center, I was 164 pounds. From 183 to 164 (19 pounds, evaporated into the ether) in just 27 days. That means I lost two pounds every three days. Madness! Pathologically inhumane!
I was grateful toward religion/religious people for one of the only times in my life when I finally got to prison. At Jacksonville, I found out they had a designated VEGAN tray list for religious reasons. I claimed Seventh-Day Adventism. Unfortunate, but you’re not allowed to get on the list for ethical or health reasons—only religious ones. Silly, I know, but one of the only things that carries weight in prison is religion. Dig this: it didn’t used to be so easy. Claim a religion, see the chaplain, and BOOM, you have access to three vegan meals a day. No, back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Dietary staff would just laugh if you asked for even a vegetarian meal. But thank Earth for us ethical vegans that there were some ultra-religion people who took their faith—and faithful diet—very seriously. Guys went on hunger strikes. They filed lawsuits for violation of religious freedom. And some upped the ante even further; guys would attack guards and fellow inmates, flood their cells by jamming up the toilet, and even take guards and other prison staff hostage in an attempt to be heard, to be taken seriously. To receive their legit vegan meals. And they won. Because of those handful of inmates who fought, literally and figuratively, for animal-free meals, every one of the 15-plus state prisons in Illinois now has a designated vegan tray.
First off, that’s fucking awesome on their part. Second, that’s fucking pathetic on our part. Physically assaulting guards and inmates, taking prison staff hostage—“just” so they could receive vegan meals. Imagine for a second. Just imagine! What would it be like if everybody took veganism and animal liberation that seriously?! Those guys had so few resources and abilities at their disposal, and yet just a handful of men changed an entire state’s policy. And this ain’t Rhode Island, folks; Illinois has close to 50,000 people in prison, with a higher per-capita rate than California. They literally risked having years added to their sentence, risked months or years of solitary confinement, risked even their very lives. Imagine if even 10 percent of those who say they believe in animal liberation were willing to take those kinds of risks. A powerful lesson—one that should both shame and inspire us—can be taken from the fight for adequate vegan meals in Illinois prisons.
I damn sure benefitted from it. The vegan trays were far, far better than the regular ones. And not just for the obvious reason that they contained no animal products. The food was tastier, with a greater variety. It makes sense. Inmate kitchen workers can make much higher quality food when they’re preparing for just eight or ten people, versus 800-900 people! The latter received trays of the lowest common denominator, and ones with food that was as simple as possible to cook. But we got stuff that was sometimes great. Spicy chili and cornbread. Garlic-butter noodles with soy crumbles. Mixed-vegetable fried rice. Perfectly spiced black-eyed peas and collard greens. Polenta casseroles. Fried cutlets of zucchini, zucchini grown in a garden maintained by the horticulture class. Fresh fruit at least once every single day (guys on the vegan list were the only inmates to receive fresh fruit—ever). Giant, warm biscuits slathered in non-dairy butter. The guy in charge of preparing the vegan trays, Duff, wanted to hook us up. Simple supply/demand allowed him to spend more time on our trays, enabling him to show off his cooking skills. He succeeded. For prison food, especially in the Midwest-U.S., Jacksonville’s vegan trays were comparatively spectacular! Because of my disabling chronic nerve pain condition, I only went to chow once a day, for lunch. Breakfast was far earlier than I wanted to wake up, and dinner in the dining hall was served during my afternoon siesta—a required nap, because my pain was most unbearable in the late afternoon and early evening. So I prepared my own dinner every night. Purchased the ingredients through Commissary. I made one of two things for my entire incarceration: either (1) spicy fried rice with noodles, or (2) a delicious meal of spicy refried beans, knockoff Ramen noodles sans the MSG- and chemical-laden seasoning packet, minced onion and garlic, pickled jalepeños, and spicy chili corn chips, which were accidentally (miraculously) vegan. Some other vegan treats they had on Commissary were ridged potato chips, granola bars that were fantastic with peanut butter, off-brand Golden Grahams, Oreos, knockoff Nutty Bars, and Sierra Mist Natural soda.
All in all, and considering the circumstances, I almost never felt like I was suffering for lack of decent food. Of all the challenges I anticipated leading up to prison and faced while incarcerated, staying vegan was definitely one of the easiest. Not every state is like Illinois in this regard—most are worse, but some are actually even better. I hear federal prisons have vegan options far superior to any state prison. But luckily I landed in a place that made it simple and predictable. For this, I’m hugely indebted to those incredible warriors who Took Shit Seriously and battled with almost unimaginable ferocity to receive acceptable vegan meals. I only hope those of us in the free(-ish) world will learn from their example, and be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve our own goals and dreams of animal liberation. Let’s be more like those prisoners; let’s REALLY begin to Take Shit Seriously. Let’s learn from those human prisoners so we can make a real, tangible (not symbolic) difference in the lives of nonhuman prisoners.
 I know in Illinois, at least, if a prisoner takes someone hostage, the policy is shoot-to-kill; in fact, staff members have to sign a waiver saying they understand, basically, that if they’re taken hostage they’re most likely fucked.
 Ironically, Duff contributed to getting me kicked out of the special Drug Unit, which cost me 4.5 months of good time. He almost made up for that despicable treachery w/ his slick vegan cooking.
 BAMN!—By Any Means Necessary!