John Avila cooks prison-inspired dishes at his stand, Prison Pies

In his 2016 book Commissary kitchen, rapper Albert ‘Prodigy’ Johnson wrote, “Food isn’t just food. It is your being. It’s your family, your memories, your neighborhood, your ethnicity, your travels and everything in between.

And later: “In a world where prisoners are treated like animals, we made our experience there more human by the way we prepared our food. After all, we were somebody’s brother, somebody’s father, a son.

On a recent first Friday in downtown Phoenix, a small food cart at Fifth and Garfield attracts curious passers-by with its name, Prison Pies. Phrases such as ‘It’s time to eat’, ‘Food is so good it should be illegal’ and ‘Come try prison-inspired food made by convicts’ are written on the faux leather bottom. laminated brick of the carriage. On the other side are handwritten notes, including one of encouragement from the owner’s 12-year-old daughter. The menu features Prison Tamale, Prison Nachos, Chow Hall Hot Dogs and Cadillac Iced Coffee.

Serving a prison sentence is stigmatizing and often creates barriers to employment. Prison Pies owner John Avila has decided to embrace this stigma and bring his past to the fore. Although Avila had the idea for his food business after his release in 2004, it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that he made it happen. “Summer in Phoenix wasn’t the best time to open, but the slow days made the learning curve easier, as I had never worked in the food industry,” he says. The Prison Pies merch, also on sale here, is made at his shop, Mary Jane Smokewear, a print shop he’s owned since 2009.

Avila learned to cook from her grandmother and later followed by watching cooking shows.

Last fall, during a lecture at the Arizona State University Museum of Art exhibition Undoing Time: Art and Stories of Incarceration, Avila asked the audience if anyone had watched reality TV shows about prisons; a few hands went up. “They always show the drama, but they never show you our food,” he told them. “Mealtime is really important to us. It’s where we get together and respect each other. Whether it’s your birthday or you’re about to be discharged, your homies throw you a party. And then you get your ass fucked in. It’s wild, but there’s a lot of love in there too.

Click to enlarge

Avila’s daughter’s note to her father.

Bahar Anooshahr

In 2020, prisons spent between 75 cents and $3.18 per meal per person. In 2015, the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that sheds light on the criminal justice system, reported that Arizona’s allowance averaged 56 cents per person.

Prison food, of course, is not yours. “You start missing and craving your cultural food,” Avila says. Moreover, the quality of prison food is dismal, leaving inmates starving and demoralized, sometimes even physically ill. There have been reports of moldy bread, rat and cockroach infestations. , and expired foods.

“Wed find rocks and bugs in our food,” recalls Jesse Yazzie, Phoenix artist and former inmate. “The portions were so small that we were always hungry.

Additionally, research shows that many who enter a correctional facility in good health come out with diabetes and high blood pressure due to the high sodium, refined starch, and sugar content of meals. A 2017 article in the American Journal of Public Health reported that inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from food poisoning than the general population.

As a result, the inmates started cooking their own food.

“The food we made ourselves was better than the dining room, and I loved watching people’s reactions,” says Avila. He and others bought ingredients from the prison commissioner with money received for work or good behavior.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates can earn between 12 and 40 cents an hour for work. When Avila was incarcerated, he says, he received “a paycheck of about $14 every two weeks.”

With ingredients purchased from stewardship, inmates can invent their own recipes and often improvise to construct a semblance of food from their heirloom. There are a number of prison cookbooks written by people who have served time. Condemned cooking, Commissary kitchenand The greedy prison are just a few of the titles available.

Click to enlarge Prison inspired tamales.  - BAHAR ANOOSHAHR

Prison inspired tamales.

Bahar Anooshahr

“When you taste the food of your culture, you temporarily forget the walls around you, the confinements or the fights,” says Avila. “You think about your family and the people you miss.”

For his part, he wanted his grandmother’s tamales. He recalled that she recruited the whole family to make the dish, “like an assembly line, and she was the boss”.

When he tasted the tamales prepared by his fellow inmates, he says, “it felt like home”. Instead of cornmeal, they would mash the Doritos and moisten them to create their version of masa, then top them with canned shredded beef. Avila uses the same recipe for his food cart, but now he cooks the meat himself.

Cadillac Coffee is a mocha coffee with chocolate or caramel sauce and your choice of candy (Snickers, Butterfingers, all of the above). There was no chocolate sauce or sugar in the correctional facility, so inmates would crush candy bars and add them to their coffee. “That drink made us feel like we were a bit outside,” Avila recalls.

At the cart, he greets customers and takes their orders. When he hears a customer say he’s a Doritos demon, Avila adds extra Doritos to his tamale. He uses the small bags of potato chips in place of a corn or banana leaf, shaping the moistened mixture of crushed potato chips and pulled beef by folding the bag just right. When he opens the bag, a rectangular tamale awaits him. Get it with cheese and beans, and feel free to dig. It has the texture of a tamale, with a meaty flavor of Doritos. But the feeling goes beyond the taste: you can feel Avila’s love of cooking and his joy in sharing the very meals that gave him a momentary escape – and you appreciate what he did to get here. .

Visit the website to learn more about the whereabouts of Avila and Prison Pies.

James C. Tibbs