By Tony Vick / Waging Nonviolence
Food is the ultimate equalizer. We cannot live without it, and most of us spend countless hours satisfying our palates with goodies that bring us comfort and satisfaction. My friends and I sitting around a table breaking bread together is far more than just having a meal; it’s the true form of peace talks, a common thread that we can all agree on: I’m hungry. Feed me.
My first chow-hall experience in prison, nearly 30 years ago, was a far cry from family meals back home. In single file, we were marched in, then picked up a tray at the window and sat where we were told to sit. But I was determined to find a way to create a family-type supper — even in prison, at least occasionally.
Luckily, the prison had a commissary where we could order various food items once a week. I began with a Saturday night supper when the chow-hall menu called for the basic slop. That week, three inmates in my cell block and I each had ordered a few commissary items that I’d use to prepare our supper.
In the unit, I set the table, served the food, and we all laughed and talked and shared our day’s events. It was the one thing that brought us together — the equalizer, a shared meal. Many such suppers have occurred over my years in prison. My recipes have grown, and my guest lists have changed, but each supper has been an event where walls were let down and friendships developed.
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I discovered that my supper mates and I had more in common than we ever imagined. Sharing a meal allowed us to drop the bravado and the layers of emotional protection we placed around us and simply exist as human beings who needed to eat. As a result, we found ourselves greeting as we passed by each other and smiling occasionally even in the midst of the coldness and steel of prison, and the loom of violence all around. Slowly a community formed, and it became my prison family. When you know someone, and part of their story, you’re less likely to cause them harm.
Recently, I found myself being transferred to a different prison with a reputation for violence and gang activity. I was placed in the absolute bloodiest unit that housed four top gang leaders and their cronies. Correctional officers were afraid to stay in the unit much of the time, allowing all 128 inmates to run wild and uncontrolled. It was a reflection point for me to consider how my life was going to be in my new home.
As I got older in prison a lot of my answers to questions changed. When I was younger, scared and naive to prison culture, when asked how to curb violence, my answer was “with violence.” Power respects power. My years have taught me otherwise. I’ve seen so much blood, injury and death, unnecessarily so, by men simply not wanting to appear weak. My answer to the question now is: The only truly effective weapon against violence is love and compassion. Both are hard to imagine while living in concrete cages with a system set up to dehumanize the captives. So it takes creative thinking, time and energy, and investing in people and not shanks.
At the new prison, I walked into an empty cell. The previous occupants had just been taken to the hole for stabbing an older man for his commissary food and hygiene items. The cell was filthy with human waste still in the toilet and black soot still on the walls from burning cigarettes hand-rolled in Bible pages.
Just behind me walked in a younger man, tall with imposing features, his clear bags of property in tow — my new cellie. The officer pushed the cell door shut because the prison was going on lockdown. So, there we were, two strangers in a nasty eight-by-10-foot cell sizing each other up.
I introduced myself, and he replied, “I’m Too Tall: I’m a Crip, are you affiliated?” “No” I responded. He didn’t look too surprised and was asking out of common prison courtesy. We each went about our business, putting stuff away on the rusty metal shelves and cleaning the best we could with a rag and a bar of Dial soap.
The roaches scurried about as we intruded on their spaces, the crevices found in the nooks and crannies around the room. No words were spoken; just two bodies moving about in a dance learned from years of occupying small spaces in prison.
By nightfall, only a flickering fluorescent bulb remained to light our space. I looked at the few commissary items I had left from the trip: a summer sausage, a bar of cheese, a pickle, a bottle of mustard and a sleeve of crackers. I decided to open up all the items as I knew they would be stolen tomorrow if the lockdown lifted. I meticulously laid six crackers on two separate pieces of notebook paper. I tore the sausage and cheese into twelve pieces and did the same for the pickle. With a dab of mustard on each cracker, I stacked the ingredients to form the appetizers. My cellie lay silently on his bunk, never taking his eyes from my operation.
“Too Tall, here, I made us some snacks,” I said, as I handed him the paper lined with six meat-filled crackers. With a slight hesitation, he extended his hands and took the snacks and allowed a wrinkly smile to form in the corner of his mouth. The rest of the night, for hours and hours, we talked about our families, our pasts, and all those crazy prison stories we had accumulated over the years. Food became our common experience, a light-hearted and unpretentious moment to relax and be vulnerable and safe.
As it turned out, Too Tall was the enforcer for his gang. That title represents everything you may think it does. In fact, he had just returned from a stint in the hole for “enforcing” on a person who disrespected one of his gang brothers. When morning came, the lockdown was lifted, and Too Tall was quickly out of the cell. I sat on my bunk awaiting my fate. I looked around the small room to see what defense mechanisms I had available. I decided to hold a hardback book to try and stop any knives being thrust at me. Soon, Too Tall entered the cell and exclaimed, “You won’t have any trouble. I told the brothers you were cool and an oldhead [a term used to describe someone who has done a lot of time and is generally respected].” And that was that. Sharing a few cracker snacks formed a bond of humanity between two people from very different worlds.
In this prison, I have found it more difficult to gather a party of convicts around a table to emulate my earlier experiences, but I have found various ways to open doors and create bonds using food as the equalizer. Simply sharing a homemade burrito or a sweet microwave creation with someone I found intimidating or threatening was my way of saying, “Hello, I care about you as a human being sharing this experience of prison with me, and I want you to be happy.” And trust me, sharing a burrito is much less stressful than carrying around a shank for protection.
Once I decided in my heart that violence was not an option for me, the decision to use something I loved as an olive branch seemed very clear. As the Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “it is possible for men and women … to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”
When you take violence off the table as a remedy for the situation, you open up your mind to a vast array of other possibilities. It forces you to think outside the box in order to find peace and understanding. In an age where it seems easier to fire off some angry words on Twitter, or in prison where it seems safer to carry a knife, why not decide that it’s not easier or safer? Instead, find the humanity that is shared between the souls of everyone: “I’m hungry. Feed me. Love me.”
Tony Vick has served almost three decades in prison, on a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. He was born in 1962 in Clarksville, Tennessee, into a home of Southern Baptist parents and an older brother, all of whom have died since his incarceration. Tony lived his life before prison as a closeted gay man, the secrets and lies led to his crimes. While in prison, Tony has worked as a tutor, newspaper editor, and clerk. He has begun book clubs, writing workshops and seminars, inmate-led elder care programs, and writes about the experience of captivity in hopes to add context to the current prison reform movement. His latest book is “Locked In And Locked Out (Tweets and Stories on Prison and the Effects of Confinement)” and you can follow him on Twitter @cellsecrets.