Eastern State Series: What inmates ate in the 20th Century

[This October, I am giving nighttime tours at Eastern State Penitentiary. Inspired by the rich and fascinating history of this abandoned prison, I have used approved sources to compile a short series of posts about food practices in the Penitentiary. If you are interested in taking a tour at night, sign up for a VIP Terror Behind the Walls experience. Daytime tours and discussions of this remarkable institution are also available.]

In the previous post, I discussed the findings of the 1923-24 investigations that led to a Grand Jury hearing and numerous policy changes. The 1923 Grand Jury report revealed that the Penitentiary kitchen was staffed by inmates, and that they charged a fixed rate for setting aside the best portions of food for inmates who had the means to pay for it. Although Penitentiary’s Annual Report claimed that the food was nutritious, tasty, and regularly checked by physicians, the Grand Jury report  notes that the kitchen was not particularly clean and that “slip-shod” methods of preparation were to blame for the varying quality in portions. Many inmates reported that they subsisted almost entirely on what they could buy from the commissary. One inmate is quoted as commenting, “God help the ordinary prisoners without money!”

The Grand Jury Report also listed an astonishing number of drug- and alcohol-related incidents in 1923 and 1924, many of which were not reported to the Deputy Warden at the time. Narcotics entered the Penitentiary in a variety of ways: inside rubber balls thrown over the wall into the exercise yard; via pencils and between leaves of books; and of course in food supplies brought in from the outside. Drugs were diluted with sugar of milk (crystallized lactose, commonly used as an inert agent in medicines) or lime (presumably calcium hydroxide), so those materials had to be smuggled in as well. These pipelines frequently relied on the willing collaboration of penitentiary overseers or outside workers who transported food into the penitentiary. Perhaps those arrangements can be explained in part by pointing out that Eastern State overseers and guards were paid less than their counterparts at other state penitentiaries in the 1920s, and that the drug business was largely conducted on a cash basis. Inmates possessed a credit account into which their pay for labor was deposited, and from which commissary expenses or medical co-pays would be drawn, so cash in hand meant that there were arrangements for smuggling in cash as well.

During the investigation of 1923, between 40 and 50 hooch stills were located and destroyed.  The Grand Jury report states that the hooch was

“a raw alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash composed of bread, fruit, raisins, sugar, and other materials capable of fermentation by yeast. It is artificially colored with brown sugar. It contains 36.04 per cent by volume of ethyl grain alcohol.”

So, slightly less alcoholic than brandy; about three times as strong as wine.

After the Grand Jury report, the Penitentiary took the recommended measures of replacing the kitchen staff and creating a cafeteria method of serving food to inmates. The kitchen staff was replaced. In time, when the “rural branch” of the Penitentiary was up and running in Graterford, Eastern State was able to bring in much of its meat from livestock raised at Graterford and as well as vegetables raised and canned there. Sourcing the kitchen ingredients from Graterford not only reduced some cost but also limited the potential for contraband smuggled in via food deliveries.

The menu reflected 20th century standards of nutrition; for example, there were fruit and vegetables served at least once a day. There was bread at every meal. Coffee was served with breakfast and the midday meal, tea with supper. A weekly menu from 1949 shows a range of daily options that will be familiar to anyone who has eaten in a U.S. public school cafeteria, featuring a lot of stewed meats and canned vegetables. Breakfast might include french toast, fried scrapple, or cornflakes, frequently with a side of stewed fruit. Lunch continued to be the biggest meal of the day: the entree might be pot roast, corned beef, pork chops, or fried fish with a side of veggies like peas and carrots, harvard beets, or string beans. There was often a serving of pudding, cake, or pie for dessert. Supper was a lighter meal, often soup, macaroni, chili, or pork and beans. Supper occasionally included another serving of vegetables, and usually a dessert. The food was reportedly good (according to some) or at least not bad (according to others). Inmates were not required to take or eat every available dish for each meal.

There were several exceptions to the rule of taking meals in the cafeteria along with fellow inmates. Certain inmates were kept in solitary as a punishment or as a security measure; these inmates would receive meals in their cell, and sometimes restricted rations (bread and water, mainly) were included in the punishment. At the same time, certain inmates with good reputations were given some leeway in meals and treats; an inmate who became the guard’s barber in the 40s reported that often went down to the kitchens at night, after his shift, and enjoyed some coffee and pie at his leisure.

Additionally there was also a diet kitchen in the medical wing (cell block 3) where food was prepared for inmate patients with special dietary needs. Inmates who worked in the medical wing were also permitted to eat food made in the diet kitchen, and in fact the medical wing provided occasional special dinners as perks for the inmates who worked there over the years. There was also a special kitchen in the back of the synagogue for the preparation of kosher meals, although this appears to have been used only for Jewish holidays. National holidays or special occasions were sometimes observed with special desserts and white tablecloths in the main dining area: examples include cherry pies baked on the premises for Washington’s birthday, a wedding cake baked on the premises to celebrate a female staff member’s nuptials, and holiday decorations donated by a staff member’s wife for Christmas.

As those examples show, the twentieth century brought a number of measures meant to ensure inmate health and morale: educational and religious programming was expanded, certain forms of labor were incentivized, and supporters would occasionally donate time or money to help boost morale. The Penitentiary was investigated regularly to check that the new rules and regulations were enforced.

Nevertheless, the Penitentiary struggled with overcrowding, inadequate funding, and shifting prison policy at the state and federal level. A series of riots and escapes in the sixties showed that the Penitentiary was not secure, and the prison was closed completely in 1971. The 19th century building, which was already crumbling in its last decades, became overgrown and even more dilapidated; eventually, it was stabilized and re-opened as a historic landmark.

Interestingly, rates of imprisonment have only shot up in the decades since then; the United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Food practices have changed as more and more prison services have become privatized, but that is a story for another series.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Annual Report (1922)
Eastern State Penitentiary, Oral History Interviews 37 and 54.
Johnston, Norman; Finkel, Kenneth; Cohen, Jeffrey A. Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994.

How inmates ate in the 19th century
What inmates ate in the 19th century
How inmates ate in the 20th century

Further reading:

Eastern State Penitentiary: provides some background on the site kitchen and bakery to contextualize a massive recovery project for those areas.

NY Daily News: describes a food-tasting event at the Penitentiary. The description is a little vague and confusing about when each of the depicted meals was eaten, but there is a good shot of the 19th century-style “Indian mush” and description of the 20th-century hamburger-and-gravy, and there’s a little discussion of Nutraloaf, which is sometimes used as a punishment ration in the present day.

Table Matters: a little more description of the above event, plus some contemporary context for the use of Nutraloaf as a “behavior modification.”

4 responses to “Eastern State Series: What inmates ate in the 20th Century

  1. Pingback: Eastern State Series: How inmates ate in the 19th Century | Scenes of Eating·

  2. Pingback: Eastern State Series: What inmates ate in the 19th Century | Scenes of Eating·

  3. Pingback: Eastern State Series: How inmates ate in the 20th Century | Scenes of Eating·

  4. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: the reasoning for the seasoning | Scenes of Eating·

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