It’s a common refrain among women serving time in North Carolina’s state prisons: There is no manual on how to survive incarceration. The newly imprisoned must learn the codes of life on the inside by observing more experienced inmates. 

When former Triangle attorney Jennifer Green-Lee arrived in 2015, she paid close attention to the dishes her fellow prisoners were preparing in day rooms or in between bunk beds. 

The most popular prison meals are “passed down from person to person,” says Green-Lee, who was released from the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women (RCCW) in February after serving five years for an embezzling conviction. “I got out just in time for the coronavirus,” she says.

Last week, Green-Lee and two women she befriended while serving time, Jean Suber and Erin “Jersey Girl” Kinlock, were featured in “A Taste of Prison,” an online cooking segment celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Raleigh’s Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women. In the video, the three women make an improvisational lasagna. 

Over the past four decades, the IPMW has provided chaplaincy service and cultural and educational programs for women behind bars at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (NCCIW) and the RCCW, both of which are located southeast of downtown Raleigh. 

The cooking tutorial was one of five virtual events hosted by the organization. The first episode, “HERstory,” focuses on the history and milestones of the IPMW, taking a look at the evolution of women’s incarceration in the United States over that 40-year period.

Speaking with the INDY, IPMW Executive Director Jennifer Jackson stresses the importance of feeding incarcerated women’s “hunger for spiritual progress and growth, while helping them to develop in all the ways they want to be whole.” That means support while they are locked away, and more support when they are released.

Before introducing the “Taste for Prison” episode, local television personality Valonda Calloway reminds viewers that the pandemic has forced many of us into isolation. Fittingly, Green-Lee, Kinlock, and Suber’s presentation offers a glimpse of what it might be like to celebrate birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries away from our families.

Green-Lee’s journey with prison cooking began with her first official prison meal: A biscuit with molasses. The bland, unimaginative dining hall offerings left her in a state of perpetual hunger. She recalls the 5:30 a.m. breakfast servings of toast and scrambled eggs alongside instant coffee with distaste. Lunch was a frozen meat patty, a scoop of mixed vegetables, and a piece of fruit. The 3:30 p.m. finale was another meat patty and vegetable. 

“They make sure you get a certain number of calories each day,” Green-Lee says. “But they don’t modify it in any way. So you get the proper nutrients, but they’re not edible nutrients. It’s like the dishes you knew to stay away from at the church social.”

Her first improvised meal was a trash bag of ramen noodles heated with hot water. 

“You put the noodles in a trash bag, added water as hot as you could get it from the sink, and prayed to God it cooked,” she says. 

Slowly, Green-Lee began to re-imagine cooking, prison-style. A “spork” from a dining hall meal became a tool for shredding blocks of cheese that family members would sometimes send in food boxes three times a year. Stoves and ovens were replaced by the three microwaves used by the nearly 200 prisoners housed at the RCCW’s minimum custody facility. 

“State cakes”—made with oatmeal cream pies and honey buns, frosted with melted Hershey bars and decorated with M&Ms—featured prominently at birthday celebrations, parties, and anniversaries. 

Kinlock became friends with Green-Lee while they were serving their prison sentences. Kinlock was convicted in 2014 of armed robbery in Cumberland, NC, and sentenced to more than nine years. She was released last September. 

U.S. prison populations have been declining over the past decade. But women’s incarceration rates—particularly for white women—have increased by 800 percent over the past 40 years. 

IPMW has also provided housing and re-entry assistance over its history; the importance of its work cannot be overstated. Kinlock began working in the office of the non-profit during the last two years of her sentence, and she describes the staff’s support of women who are transitioning from prison to home as “invaluable.”

Green-Lee’s job during her first six months in prison was in the mess hall, where she worked as the lead cook. Her day started at 3:45 a.m., when she began cooking, and her shift ended at 1:30 p.m. She was paid 60 cents a day.

Green-Lee, Kinlock, and Suber bonded while playing Spades over snacks purchased from the canteen. 

“We had three solid years together where we would just hang out and enjoy each other’s company,” Kinlock says. “A lot of the prison food is not very good. Sometimes you had to make do with what you had and eat at the dining hall because that’s all you have. To cook gave a sense of normalcy, and it was something we could do together.”

Toward the end of their sentences, the three friends weren’t able to spend as much time together, and cooking became even more important. 

Depending on who arrived home first, the women would prepare food bowls for everyone to eat after they returned to the barracks from work.

Green-Lee remembers those meals and how they provided sustenance that went beyond satisfying her hunger.

 “I was grateful when someone would leave a hot meal on my bunk,” she says. “There was nothing better than seeing a bowl of lasagna on my bunk bed. It established a real sense of community.”

 On October 26, the three women reunited for the cooking demo. Seated together at a table in the video, they wear masks and rubber gloves, the ingredients for lasagna spread out before them. 

Each woman has brought what she needs to create her individual portion: packs of ramen noodles, a block of cheese, tortillas, a sugar packet, a spork, summer sausage links, and the brand of pasta sauce that can be purchased at the prison canteen, along with an inmate ID card. 

There are also two smuggled items: a fresh onion and a plastic knife.

“Breaking bread gives us a sense of normality,” Kinlock says, then begins shredding the block of cheese with a spork. 

At this point, the cooking and laughter begin in earnest.

“We have a fresh onion that won’t make it into the lasagna if Karen doesn’t make it out of the dining hall tonight with it smuggled under her shirt,” Green-Lee intones with mock solemnity.

Green-Lee adds that the “18-month-old plastic smuggled knife has been used at other events,” and that getting caught with the thing is a serious offense because it’s considered a weapon.

“It’s definitely a risk we’re willing to take,” says Suber. 

“To have food,” Kinlock adds, finishing Suber’s sentence.

Green-Lee pauses from cutting the onion to crunch up a bag of noodles. Then she slams the pack on the floor to make sure the contents are sufficiently crumbled.

Suber, who now manages a transition house for women out of prison, says that sometimes the bonds forged among friends behind bars can be closer than bonds with actual family members.

Kinlock agrees.

“Women, we’re nurturers by nature,” she says, “And we have been separated from our families and our children, and locked away, and we feel forgotten. And for a short time, it gives us the ability to supplement our families with our new prison family, and feel like we’re part of something again. It helps you to process [and] get through the very real pain of not being with your family.”

Kinlock continues to shred the cheese with the spork and Green-Lee looks around warily.

“If there are no snitches in the dayroom, then you get to use the trusty knife that has been passed down from month to month to month, until it actually gives up the fight and breaks.”

Kinlock explains the spork’s multiple uses, and Green-Lee cuts in with a bit of a public service announcement.

“If you guys are having trouble finding this part of the equipment,” she says, “You can always go to your local Bojangles or a fast food restaurant.”

In lieu of the smuggled plastic knife, Suber recommends using a prison ID card that’s stuck inside of a glove. 

The magnetic end is up because you don’t want to damage it and render the card unusable at the prison canteen.

“Looka there!” Suber exclaims, with all of the enthusiasm of a food show host on cable TV. “The ID card slices through the meat stick. “I bet you didn’t think I could do that, did you?” 

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