Prison Pete

Sunday, March 28, 2010
  What Is A Need, and What Do You Need?
A recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article on the author James Patterson included the following quote from him:

"I have a saying. If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something."

There is that word again, need.

As you may have read on this blog, being able to prepare your own food is a big deal in prison. For most of the last thirteen years, I have been able to prepare at least one meal a day for myself. I have been blessed with both financial and emotional support from my parents. Now that is no longer the case and that has radically altered the way I exist here.

I am not complaining or looking for a pity party. Hopefully I can use my current circumstance to explore with others what our individual needs are and how we meet them. You might think that would be easy but I challenge anyone to be able to define what another human's needs are. Think about it -- life would be a whole lot easier if it was that black and white.

Okay Pete, here is a list of your needs, and here is the package that contains all your needs. How cool would that be? Some of you may say I am in that position now. Doesn't the prison meet all my needs?

Upon my arrival in the NY State Correctional System, I was issued three sets of clothing. Each set consisted of a pair of pants, a short sleeve button shirt, poly/cotton blend T-shirt and boxers, and a pair of socks. In addition, I was given one of each of the following: a winter coat, long sleeve sweatshirt, hand towel (large size or small bath towel depending how you look at it. It measures 20" X 40"), a washcloth, a thin blanket, a pillow and pillow case, a long sleeve button up white dress shirt. Also two twin-size flat (as opposed to one fitted, one flat) sheets.

I did not mention the footwear. That was an area where my needs did not match what the State normally supplied. I happen to have extremely wide feet. (The better to perform my walking on water trick.) My feet usually fit into a size 12 EEEEEE (that is six E's) shoe or sneaker. The short term solution was not to issue me the normal heavy duty work boots, and simply give me a larger pair of lace up sneakers. The closest size that I could get into turned out to be a size 14.

The problem with these was that my feet still pushed out the sides, and there was more sneaker out front of my toes then should have been. Eventually I was provided with both a pair of boots and sneakers ordered from a special supplier of wide footwear. The point being that it took a while for "the system" to provide for my needs, which admittedly are not the norm. Instead of the cheap canvas low-top no-name sneakers (at one point they were dubbed "Air Pataki's", I have not heard them renamed, "Air Paterson's") I ended up with an $85 pair of New Balance Walkers (leather uppers).

On the one hand, my needs were different than the average inmate, but it was a need that was easily quantifiable once they put my foot in the shoe size measurer. All our needs are not that easily defined.

Now as far as the clothing goes, I happen to be a "brief" man. (Although that might not be readily apparent from some of my writing.) Also I tend to be more comfortable with 100% cotton close to my skin. Luckily, in both the federal and NY State systems, you are allowed to purchase 100% cotton underwear.

In the federal system you are not allowed to receive any items from the outside world, but the commissary carried a full selection of 100% cotton underwear for purchase, provided you had some personal funds. While the prison provided underwear, they recognized that not everyone would want to wear what they issued.

In NY State you are allowed to order certain items from outside vendors, and as luck would have it, 100% cotton underwear is one of those items. Once again, as long as you have some personal funds, you can clad yourself in cotton comfort. Ahhhh, it feels so nice.

That is one solution to meeting a person's needs, give them an option. Of course in the case of the underwear, it is only an option for those with personal funds.

There are over 800 inmates here, ranging in age from 17 to over 65, weighing from around 100 pounds to over three hundred pounds, and each inmate is given exactly the same amount of food. One scoop of this, one cup of that, four slices of bread, one spoon full of veggies, etc.

In the federal system, you were able to serve yourself as much beverage, vegetables, beans of some type, and rice or potatoes as you wanted. If you wanted to pass up the main entree being served you could still build a healthy and satisfying meal with the beans as a source of protein. The entree was portioned controlled; two hamburgers, a piece of fried chicken, or two slices of meat.

In NY State all meal items are rationed. You are even limited to one 8 oz. glass of Kool-Aid with each lunch and dinner. For the breakfast meal you can have up to two 8-ounce cups of milk.

The main problem I have with the food here in NY State is the abundance of carbohydrates and lack of protein. I need protein! I can tell when I am not getting enough protein; my brain just does not function at peak efficiency. Yes there is protein in most foods, but when you have to eat a ton of extra carb calories to get the protein, that is tough on the waistline.

For example, this evening I had a bowl of black bean soup. Soup may be stretching it a bit. I opened up a sixteen ounce can of black beans, added one medium sized onion, some black pepper, oregano, and garlic powder, a dash of ketchup, and nuked it at 60% power for five minutes. I topped it off with some crushed saltines and Parmesan cheese. The can of beans provides: 420 calories, 28 grams of protein, 0 fat, 21 grams of dietary fiber (84% daily requirement), and 52% of the recommended amount of iron.

Now compare that nutrition wise (and cost) to a Big Mac or a Whopper and see what a difference that is. The cost of this meal is 55¢ for the can of beans and maybe another 15¢ for the onion and spices.
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