BLOG: Why food vendors belong in the prison yard

Krispy Kreme was one of the vendors recently selected by Corcoran inmates to participate in a fundraising sale to benefit the Corcoran High School MECha Club, Jesse Milo reported via prisonjournalismproject.org. The plan was thwarted by an outbreak of Covid-19 in the prison. Photo by No Revisions via unsplash.com

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on zocalopublicsquare.org. It is reproduced here with permission. The author is being held at Corcoran Drug Treatment Center and State Prison in California.

Imagine a large box. You sleep in the box. Eat in the box. Work in the box. Exercise in the box. Your view is limited to what fits inside and a slice of sky above. Occasionally, one of the box’s walls will open, allowing you, for a short time, to exit, where another larger box awaits.

This is my best attempt to describe the separation between the rest of the world and the inmates here in Court C of the State Prison and Drug Treatment Facility (SATF), one of the highest security courts of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. . The design of the prison erects huge barriers between the inmates and the town of Corcoran, which is outside the second “box”.

SATF opened its heavy door in 1997. Three years later, the 2000 US Census found Corcoran’s population to be less than 14,500. By 2010, that number had reached nearly 25,000. By 2020, the population had fallen to 22,000. The ebb and flow largely accounts for changes in the number of people residing here inside the boxes: the population SATF prison population reached 7,500 in 2005 and hovered around 4,500 in the spring of 2021.

Despite this increase since the prison opened, Corcoran remains a small town by California standards—a status that further sets it apart from the C-yard prisoners. We rarely get to see the place. Inmates with legal issues in the county must travel out of town to find court. For medical procedures beyond the capacity of the SATF, prisoners are taken to hospitals in Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties. The network’s affiliates are located in Fresno and Bakersfield, so the only regular television coverage inmates see of Corcoran itself comes from the weather scan listing the expected temperatures for the day. Daily life in other towns around the Central Valley is more familiar to C-yard inmates than that of the actual town in which they reside.

Over the past few years, however, a bond has slowly been forged between Corcoran and some of its resident maximum-security inmates. The rather benign force responsible?

Food sales and charity fundraisers.

Local vendors, the C-yard administration and the Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) – an elected body of inmates, by inmates and for inmates – have teamed up to hold regular food sales to the inmate population at course of the last four years. Food sales bring in significant sums for vendors and also benefit local community organizations. Each sale has a designated charitable beneficiary, who receives a percentage of the money raised.

But food sales are only a small idea. Here’s an even better and bigger idea: Every yard in every California prison, regardless of security level, should provide its inmates with the opportunity to have a positive impact on the local community.

From start to finish, each food sale takes about a month to get organized. Much of the legwork is done by IAC representatives. A few of their tasks include: requesting the desired food supplier; distribute, collect and submit food sales slips for approval; and deliver each individual order to inmates on the day of the sale.

The administration manages contacts with vendors, processes sales slips and determines charity recipients. Local restaurants and franchise chains – offering Mexican food, Asian food, barbecue, pizza, burgers and ice cream – participated. The association’s recipients are rotated with each sale, although an organization called Corcoran Emergency Aid has been selected on several occasions. The September 2021 sale benefited the Corcoran Kiwanis Club.

Inmates who participate in the sales know they will pay top dollar for the food. During the August 2021 sale, for example, pizza prices were between $14 and $21. Burgers from the September 2021 sale range from $7 to $13. There’s also the mandatory 13% donation fee, added to the top of every order.

Despite these costs, sales are popular among inmates. The August 2021 sale generated over $19,000 in sales and $2,500 in donations, about the average for these fundraisers. Considering that these sales take place almost every month (perhaps two a year are canceled for various reasons, and another five were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic), the scale of funds injected into Corcoran and surrounding communities is amazing.

Sales also represent an important transfer of capital from urban to rural areas. Most C-yard inmates come from major cities in southern and northern California and receive their spending money from friends and family back home.

The frequency of these food sales surprises the newly arrived inmates in Yard C; such occurrences are less common in many other prisons, where the largest direct inmate expenditures are on canteen purchases and package deals. Little or none of this money ends up in surrounding communities. For Corcoran, where businesses and community organizations have suffered from the pandemic, food sales provide an additional economic benefit to complement the many benefits of SATF’s presence.

Earlier I asked you to imagine a box within a box. Allow me to add a few details. C-yard in SATF is a massive concrete warehouse anchored in a massive cage of barbed wire and deadly electric fencing that places “state prison” in the institution’s otherwise progressive name. Among California’s maximum-security courts, C-yard is exceptional for its lack of inmate jobs and outdoor recreation time. It was designed for storage, not for programming.

Other SATF workcamps have given inmates the opportunity to have a positive impact on the community through mentoring and juvenile diversion programs. For years, C-yard offered virtually no rehabilitation activities of any kind. That started to change, slowly, in 2016. Self-help and education classes increased little by little, until the pandemic shut those programs down for over a year.

Food sales only paused briefly with the arrival of COVID-19; they remain the closest thing to the direct contact that C-yard inmates have with the community.

Does it matter that most inmates prefer not to pay for the charity donation? My own response is to point out what is clear: that all interested parties benefit from the sales. Prisoners get a much needed break from prison food. Sellers get a big dose of business. Community organizations collect essential fundraising donations. These are three big reasons why food sales are a good idea.

But food sales are only a small idea. Here’s an even better and bigger idea: Every yard in every California prison, regardless of security level, should provide its inmates with the opportunity to have a positive impact on the local community.

Indeed, given the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s current focus on rehabilitation, any project that instills in inmates a desire to help others and the community as a whole should be considered an essential part of this process.

And, even if security imposes certain limits, there is no shortage of possible ways to connect our prisoners and our prison cities. Volunteer work can take many forms, both virtual and in-person. Prisons could partner with community organizations to do work inside the prison and in the community. Certainly, current debates in California communities about crime and punishment and related issues like homelessness would be well served by including those who live in state-owned boxes.

In the meantime, the food sales should and will continue here, until we muster the will and the creativity to find better ways to transcend these prison walls.


This test is part of the Zócalo/California Wellness Foundation survey “What would ending mass incarceration mean for prison cities?” which will conclude with an event broadcast live from Susanville, California on April 7. For more information, visit zocalopublicsquare.org.

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