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Thanksgiving on Death Row

by Buff Whitman-Bradley

Several men on San Quentin’s death row like to cook for each other from time to time and share common meals.  They use food they save from their prison meals and other ingredients they buy from the canteen.  Our friend Rudy is one of those men.  His custom-made salsa, his soups, and his burritos are highly prized.

Rudy says no one has friends on death row.  You can’t let your guard down.  You always have to watch your back.  These are men whose lives have been deformed and defined by extreme violence.  Virtually everyone in prison for a violent crime, I once heard a criminologist say, was the victim of beatings, torture, molestation, as a child. They learned violence as a way of relating and carried the lessons brutality taught them out of their homes and into the world.    On death row, the guilty and the innocent alike (and there are innocent men on death row) are trapped inside a system that repeats those vicious lessons of childhood, a socially-approved system intricately and meticulously constructed for the expressed purpose of performing the ultimate violent act, the murder of a human being.

There are no kitchen appliances on death row, so preparing food takes some ingenuity. Rudy has a five-gallon plastic bucket in his cell that he fills partway with water.  To heat the water he uses a couple of “stingers,” those heating coils you find in motel rooms for brewing a cup of coffee or tea. He places a smaller “bucket”—a plastic bleach bottle with the top cut off—into the large water-filled one creating a kind of double-boiler.  He adds his ingredients to the small bucket, covers and lets simmer, usually for several hours, until it is all cooked to his satisfaction.

The day begins on Rudy’s tier when the cell doors open at 7:30. The men come out of their cells to shave and shower and that’s usually when plans are hatched for a meal.  Maybe some have saved their hamburger patties from yesterday’s dinner, or their eggs from this morning’s breakfast, and somebody says, “I’ll make the soup if you make the burritos,” for the dinner klatsch.  (“Dinner” is served sometime in the late morning or very early afternoon, because everybody has to be back inside his cell at 1:30, when the doors are locked again until 7:30 the next morning.)

Here’s Rudy’s recipe for salsa

Rudy’s Salsa

Get one or two bottles
of Louisiana hot sauce
a bag of chopped chiles
and a bag of jalapeños
from the canteen
Start with a five-gallon bucket
Fill it with water
about a third of the way
Plug in your stingers
and put them into the water
to start heating it
Into a smaller bucket
made of the bottom part
of a plastic bleach container
pour in a bottle – or maybe two –
of Louisana hot sauce
Add a whole bagful of chopped chiles
Cut up a couple of jalapeños
and stir them into the mixture
with liquid from the bag
Put the small bucket into the big one
and cover the whole thing tightly
with some plastic
or a piece of cardboard
with books on top of it
or whatever else you can find
to keep the heat and the moisture in
Let it simmer for three to four hours
Take it out and let it cool
then pour it into a plastic jar
to save until you need it
for burritos or tacos
or scrambled eggs
or a bowl of beans
From the first taste
it will make you sweat

Rudy is housed on the south side of death row’s North Seg, a kind of honor unit where the prisoners are able to interact on the tier.  There are only 68 prisoners in North Seg, 34 on each side.  All the rest of San Quentin’s 650 death row prisoners are housed either in the “Adjustment Center” (basically, solitary confinement) or in East Block, where they must either be locked in their cells or go out to the yard—no socializing on the tier.  Most prisoners are unwilling to risk losing the privilege of those six hours a day of relatively “free” movement, so problems in North Seg are few.  During that time, prisoners play cards and dominos, visit each others’ “houses,” trade books, circulate newspapers and magazines, and, around the winter holiday season, plan a holiday feast—either   Thanksgiving or Christmas—for their side of the tier.

Not all the men on the tier take part in the preparations, but everyone is invited to the party. Various prisoners volunteer for making burritos, soup, sandwiches; for buying a soda for each “guest.”  Somebody always puts together gift bags of candy, peanuts, chips, cookies, and other canteen items. 

Around noon, the ping-pong table is covered with a couple of clean sheets, the food is laid out, dinner is announced,  the men crowd around and fill their plates, and find places to sit and eat and talk.  It is hard to imagine the conversations – or is it?  I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing that there’s no talk of the actual crimes for which they were convicted. Maybe they talk about where their cases are in the appeals process, about their lawyers, about the chances for a reversal or a new trial.  Or could it be that the talk is pretty much the same as it is around your family’s Thanksgiving table, or mine?  Politics, family gossip, football, the wars, the weather.

A few minutes before 1:30, it is time to clear the table collect the trash, and head back to the cells to be locked in for the next 18 hours.

I’m not inclined to go all gooey and sentimental about what warm and fuzzy persons the residents of death row really are, underneath it all.  I do think our friend Rudy is a wonderful – and very damaged – person, and I suspect it is true of many others in his situation. I also know that there are people there who have committed unspeakably brutal crimes against their fellow humans.  A death penalty lawyer I know once expressed the ambivalence that many death-row visitors feel when she talked about her first visit to “The Row”:  “Here I was sitting across from a man who had killed two or three people and I realized that I really liked the guy.” 

I have always been touched by Rudy’s accounts of these death row feasts, and struck by the seeming incongruity of convicted murderers so carefully, thoughtfully – I am tempted to say tenderly – preparing and sharing a holiday meal together.  Perhaps – who knows?—even letting their guards down for a brief time.   But maybe the incongruity is more apparent than real. Lewis Thomas writes, “I maintain, despite the moment’s evidence against the claim, that we are born and grow up with a fondness for each other, and we have genes for that.” I don’t think the message we’re getting from our DNA is merely about feeling affection for our brother and sister humans.  I think maybe it is signaling to us about a need that goes right down to our bones, to the very core of our humanness.  Maybe we can never be fully who we are except in community, in conversation, in shared meals, shared work, shared  burdens, shared dreams.  Maybe we need others to bring us into the full flower of our own being.  And if that is so, it is as true for men living on the extreme and perilous edges of our society, convicted of murder, waiting to be murdered themselves, as it is for any and all of us.  Maybe those community meals provide a way for prisoners on death row to break out, for however short a time, from their watch-your-back isolation. Maybe those community meals, those communions, in the House of Death are a way of saying, of affirming, to themselves and to each other, “We are not alone, and we, too, are human.”

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