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Detail of a canteen slip from San Quentin State Prison
Detail of a canteen slip from San Quentin State Prison

A canteen form is slipped into my cell through the side of the door.

When I was out on the streets, I wasn’t this excited about chips, cookies, beans and ramen soups — the kind of items I can buy in the prison commissary store. But when my canteen storage box runs empty, having those items becomes a number one priority.

I submit my canteen slip on a Sunday evening. I don’t know when my purchases will arrive. They might be delivered anywhere from one to seven days from now.

Every time an officer speaks on the tier, I listen intently for any mention of “canteen” or “store” until then. I cannot stop thinking about duplex creme cookies and making a “spread,” which is prison speak for a creative meal made by ourselves. In the meantime, my stomach growls.

Finally, the day arrives. We have to wait until 7 p.m. for the distribution. As soon as the canteen is delivered, I tear through a package of Danish pastries. Afterward, I immediately go for the Duplex Creme sandwiches. I take down half a rack of cookies in record time. Call me a cookie monster.

In a few days, the canteen will be used up and the cycle will begin anew.

Why is canteen so compelling? I guess snacks act as a type of comfort food to distract us from the mental pain, stress and anxiety of being locked away from the rest of society. Our loved ones send us cash to enable these purchases, so that we may know that they care for us. In this way, the canteen symbolizes our recognition as human beings with a life beyond these walls.

The canteen also helps reduce our fears of not having enough food to eat — oftentimes, prison provided meals are not enough to stay full. When food items run low, stress tends to run high among prisoners. (The canteen is important also because we get essential items such as hygiene and caffeine products which, in most cases, are not provided for free in prison).

Prisoners use food items purchased from the canteen to make burritos, nachos and more complicated spreads. In my facility, meals can consist of ingredients like ramen soups, beans, jalapeños, chips, cheese, meat logs and pork skins. These items are prepared independently and ultimately assembled to create a wholesome repast.

These sumptuous spreads have prison-based cultural roots. In older times, spreads were opportunities for prisoners to gather for camaraderie and bonding. Prisoners would also converge to share food with their less fortunate peers.

Canteen not only supplies the foundation for prison-generated meals, but is also perceived as a reflection of affluence among the more fortunate and popular prisoners. It can determine who gets placed in an out-group or in-group.

The ability to purchase items also has social implications. It can mean the difference between acceptance and stereotyped ostracism.

For example, if somebody’s family doesn’t care to send prisoners canteen funds, then others might assume that they did something so abhorrent (child molestation, rape or snitching) that their family doesn’t want to help them anymore.

The canteen is a source of comfort for the oppressed and an instrument for popularity and approval.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

REGE-REX is a writer incarcerated in California.