I don’t think that anyone believes U.S. prisons will ever serve quality meals, certainly prisoners are not holding their breath. I have come across many prisoners who’ve become ill from food poisoning over the years. Likewise, prisoners have become rather resourceful in finding ways to scrape up something edible and find some protein when none is to be found. At times this may take on a primitive nature.
Perhaps the most shocking form of food hustling that I have personally witnessed was when I was doing time in the early 1990’s at Corcoran State Prison, which is located in California’s central valley. Corcoran prison becomes an oven during its red hot summers. The air is a dry heat which reaches over 100 degrees, the inside of the cells much hotter. All that could be seen in the skies is an occasional cloud – and seagulls.
One particular day comes to mind. It was hot and sticky. The kind of day when nothing is funny and a slight breeze feels like alligator breath. The yard was jammed packed as usual and looked like a good turn out at a flea market. Throngs of people spending their days -and years- walking in circles, clockwise. Thick knots of folks at tables peppered throughout the yard, playing cards or dominos.
A few chess players were seen throughout the yard for good measure. The handball courts that were off in the corner fed the cheers from turned up enthusiasts.
I was not yet 20, a young man attempting to meld into a brutal manufactured world. This was a day like any other, hot and full of tension. I was walking with a friend that I had gone to Junior High school with, catching up on old times, when I saw an Asian prisoner doing something strange. He was on the yard crew and was supposed to be picking up trash and filling the trash bag that was sitting at his feet. Instead, he was tossing something up in the air tied with a long string. I instantly recognized the homemade line as the type that is spun by prisoners and used to pass magazines during lock downs.
I had never seen anyone using the homemade line this way and so I was trying to process it all when a huge bird came crashing down to the ground. It was a Sea Gull and the Asian prisoner quickly shoved it into the trash bag and covered it with old newspaper and cardboard. I elbowed my friend and led him over to this bird catcher.
“What are doing Chino?” I asked with a look of astonishment.
He quickly realized it was the first time I’d seen anyone do this. He told me he was “fishing for a seagull.” What he described, between looking left to right, was that he would tie a mangled paper clip to the string and then throw it up in the air. Once the Sea Gull caught it in its mouth and swallowed it, the line was yanked down – along with some of the poor Gull’s insides. As a result, the bird dropped out of the air like a bad habit.
It was the poor seagull’s last meal.
Being a yard crew worker, the “fisherman” quickly made a beeline for the cell block. Me and my friend continued to walk the yard in circles and talk about what we had just seen. We wondered what he would do with the seagull.
Later that afternoon we saw the “fisherman” walk out with a plastic bowl in hand. I walked up and asked him, “What did you do with the Sea Gull?” He explained in detail now he plucked it and boiled the poor bird in a bucket after cleaning and gutting his feathery catch. Once cooked, him and his buddies mixed the meat in with Ramen noodles and anything else that they had laying around to make a prison spread.
He actually opened his bowl and offered me some, which he explained with the skill of any Top Chef that it was sweet meat. After hearing about how it was all prepared and remembering that seagull laying in the trash bag, I had to decline on tasting any of it. Besides the sickening thought of eating a prison yard seagull, I had just become a vegetarian.
As primitive as this hunt was, I cannot blame the fisherman alone. Prison slop
compels prisoners to find nourishment by any means necessary. Hunger and dietary manipulation is a real factor within U.S. prisons, which fuels the powder keg of the prison construct. But human beings are resilient and ingenious. Although our efforts may not always be the best or most harmless methods to be used, people will find ways to continue to exist.
Jose Villarreal is in solitary confinement in California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison. He will be released in 2017.
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Jose Villarreal #H84098
Pelican Bay State Prison B4-210
PO Box 7500
Crescent City, CA 95532