“What’s it like,” they ask, “doing time?”
“It’s like being a kid in a family of desert Nomads,” is my standard answer. Up at dawn, milk the camel, say your prayers, breakfast of curds and grain, a twenty-mile walk through carbon-copy sand dunes, then set up a tent and fall down. Are we there yet? Doing time is a repetitive daily trek towards some doubtful destination on the calendar.
Then, every ten-million-or-so heartbeats an unexpected oasis emerges — an ennui-quenching wellspring of something uncommon. It need not be amazing, and usually isn’t. Just different. And when it happens, that dissimilarity in prison-routine makes it feel like a night with the Rajah’s harem.
It was Tiny Tim — our four hundred-thirty-five pound Inmate Committee chairman — who broke the news. The warden had approved a food-drive for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Like a Martin Luther theses, menus were suddenly everywhere. Pulses quickened. Three-piece dinners, twenty-piece barrels, hot wings, family-sized fries, and unlimited green coleslaw — the air filled with culinary anticipation. Coveting cons huddled around order-forms like the newest edition of Hustler. “Will there be milkshakes?” one asked. That night, in prisoners’ dreams, the usual dance of breasts and thighs bore fresh implications. Twenty-nine more sleeps until fried-chicken Friday.
Unfortunately, prison life is rarely so simple. Many outsiders are surprised to learn that the penitentiary has not been a warden-run dictatorship for a long time. These days, it’s more like an infighting aristocracy, played out in Jerry-Springer dramatics. The warden / guard hierarchy has been replaced with a stew of senior management, mid-upper-level management, middle-management, lower-mid-level management, those-who-imagine-they-are-management, and finally the line staff and their powerful union, UCCO. The common thread amongst these factions is that they all believe — with Taliban conviction — that they run the joint. Which means, even if the warden says we’re eating chicken, it only takes one prima donna to say, “Let them eat cake.”
The following month, those who had bet big on a plump poultry pay-day did hard time. Rumours abounded, swamping dinghy-sized psyches like rogue ocean waves. Some said it was on. Some said it was cancelled. Then someone noticed that funds had been removed from their savings account. Next to the debit stood a telltale acronym: KFC. Surely that was the signal. They wouldn’t take our money and then cancel the order. Would they?
Finally the big day arrived, and along with it, the fowl. A quarter of the joint lined-up across from the library to take delivery. The first to pick up their orders were like new fathers — shaking hands, slapping backs, and passing out drumsticks like cigars. And then, the other shoe dropped. Forty feet down the breezeway, seven beefy prison guards stood between the main living unit and us. Their intention: no fried chicken would enter the cell-block. Their rationale: it’s a health-and-safety issue (something about cholesterol-drunk convicts going psycho with chicken bones and stabbing unwary prison guards). Their bottom line: you want fried chicken — you can choke down ‘your’ twenty-piece bucket in the library. The library that closes in forty-five minutes. Bon App’tite, convict?
But prisoners are nothing if not adaptable. Someone jimmied the library closet, and found a full box of jumbo garbage bags. Before you could say conspiracy, the Colonel’s secret recipe was cleverly repackaged and body-packed with drug-smuggler skill. One fellow with more dollars than sense stuffed a twelve-piece family dinner down the front of his pants, pulling his t-shirt over the obvious bulge.
“How do I look?” he asked his buddy.
“Like a Kentucky Fried porn star,” his friend said.
My Iranian friend, Saeed — who had been lining up a southern-spiced drumstick for entry into his gaping mouth — stopped mid-motion. Convicts crotching chicken. Not even a fast-food craving could survive that. The suddenly green Saeed and his uneaten chicken went looking for some fresh air.
Finally, in-between the parcelling of contraband poultry and whispers of an inevitable riot, Tiny Tim negotiated a truce. A passel of managers arrived, phone calls were made, meetings convened, and someone even interrupted the warden’s dinner. Eventually, it was acknowledged that MSG-deprived convicts were probably a bigger health-and-safety concern than chicken bones. The word went out, and like fifty whistling dwarves, prisoners paraded their jackpots back to the cell-block — past the furrowed brows of frustrated gate-keepers. It felt like a victory, but now I’m not so sure. I think there will probably be snow in the Sahara before the Colonel’s cuisine comes to the big house again.
The 90’s most popular sit-com boasted the birth of ‘a show about nothing’. Prisoners were never impressed. For us, the spark that spawned Seinfeld is obvious. The writers must have done time.