A Foodie’s Guide to Arizona’s Penal System What's on the menu depends on how hard you hustle

I’m not a gangster by any means, but I’ve definitely spent a few months incarcerated in Arizona’s prisons. My first two terms were wearing stripes in Maricopa County’s Tent City, while the third was in Pima County jail in oranges.

Here’s a very bad and blurred video I made in Pima County about Maricopa County’s jail system.

Stripes are for county inmates, while oranges are for prisoners and accused felons. Somehow I ended up in the latter, despite only ever being held on civil matters. I’ve never been convicted of a crime, but the injustices of industrialized prisons aren’t the focus here.

Today’s lesson is on prison food, a subject I was ironically working on when the Pima County Sheriffs violated my civil rights, entered my home without a warrant, arrested me without reading my Miranda Rights, and kidnapped me for 30 days.

I went from eating 24K gold chocolates to prison food.

And prison food doesn’t have the best reputation among the estimated 10 million inmates locked up each year. Approximately one fifth of the prison population is American, so it’s good to know what these meals are like.

Of course, like everything else in the media, prison food isn’t as bad as you’d think. In fact, it can be quite enjoyable, depending on where you’re at and for how long.

It’s used for psychological torture, but it’s also one of few things you can leverage against the facility staff. Hunger strikes are popular for pushing everyone’s cards to the table in jail. They don’t require buy-in from the entire jail – just start refusing meals, and you’ll get their attention.

I staged a hunger strike of my own in both Maricopa and Pima county jails and got different results in both. I was given a special medical tray in both. In Maricopa, that consisted of powdered beef, chicken, and fruit drink mixes to ensure my liquid diet was flavored. Since nothing else there was, it was a great win. In Pima, I was medically approved for double trays and then refused my food and threatened with torture when I asked. That hunger strike only lasted a day, because they got their act together once it became clear I was serious.

State trays are made, delivered, and served by the inmates (called trustees in Maricopa and porters in Pima). Having double trays, I could easily trade for whatever I needed, a helpful hustle while in jail.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what to expect, starting with a differentiation between state-issued and commissary food.

State-Issued Food Trays in Prison

Most people who complain about jail food never really got a taste of much past the introductory food they feed you at intake. In city jails like Tempe and Flagstaff, it’s a TV dinner. In Maricopa and Pima county jails, intake food consists of sandwiches. These are basically the same sandwiches given out daily to inmates.

State-issued trays (and bagged lunches) are the only food you’ll get if you’re indigent (read: poor). If you have money on your books, you can afford to buy an expanded menu of commissary items. Of course, these are also made specifically for security facilities, so it’s not all the same brands you know and love on the outs.

Pima County’s cafeteria food and overall feel is much closer to prison than Maricopa County’s. In fact, Maricopa County Jail (formerly known as Tent City) is set up specifically as a deterrent to prison and is therefore made much harsher in every aspect. This is because (unless you’re a gifted inmate or a paisa awaiting ICE transport) it’s meant to be a temporary home. Here’s a breakdown of the menus in these two county jails:

Pima County Cafeteria Menu

In Pima County’s Adult Detention Complex, you’re given three meals. This consists of hot breakfast and dinner trays, along with a bagged lunch.

Breakfast was served at 4:30 am where I was housed, and it consisted of surprisingly varied flavors. Twice a week, we’d have “syrup trays,” which consisted of waffles/pancakes with syrup, oatmeal or frosted flakes, fruit, fruit drink, jelly, milk, and eggs or sausage. Three times a week, the waffles/pancakes were replaced with shredded potato hash and three slices of bread. Occasional specialties like chorizo or gravy show up once a month.

Lunch typically consists of a sandwich, fruit, and milk. Sandwiches were most often bologna (or even turkey bologna) and American cheese slices on sliced white bread. Peanut butter, tuna, and even meats like pastrami and ham could be found. Fruits rotated between oranges, apples, bananas, and canned fruits and fruit cocktails. Occasionally the fruit was replaced with a fruit and cereal bar, donuts, a cookie, soup, and more.

Dinner was what I looked forward to every day while housed in Pima County Jail. The tray above is a pretty good representation, but the variety made it worthwhile. Main courses included burritos, burgers, chicken, hot dogs, and chicken fried steak. Sides were typically a vegetable (green beans, corn, carrots, cole slaw), bread (sliced, cornbread, or biscuit), and dessert (pudding, jello, cake, cookies). Kool-Aid was usually served with meals, but Fridays meant soda and popcorn.

Maricopa County Cafeteria Menu

In Maricopa County Jail, you get only two meals. This consists of a bagged lunch and hot dinner tray.

Food variety in Maricopa is completely lacking. Every morning for breakfast, you’re given a bagged lunch consisting of a loaf of dry bread, peanut butter (actually really good), ginger snaps, and a tiny bag of jelly. You also get a fruit (usually oranges, grapefruits, and apples) and milk carton.

There’s no lunch in Maricopa, and the dinner was the same every night but Friday. Slop of a variety of colors is paired with potatoes, rice, and other sides. Seasoning is rarely used, and condiments are non-existent. On Friday nights, you get chili and brownies, but the odds of the brownies not being completely eaten by the time the tray gets to you were hit and miss.

Aside from these trays, you can get special diet trays. Maricopa’s diet trays are limited to kosher, diabetic, soy/gluten allergies, and a few others. Pima has vegetarian/vegan meals and more food variety for more special diet varieties. They’re not the greatest, but they can break the monotony if you find someone who has one and is willing to trade.

Jail and Prison Commissary Food

State-issued food isn’t the only food available to prison and jail inmates. In Pima and Maricopa counties, a company called Keefe provides the commissary items, which are a mix of private-label and third-party goods. Brands like Cactus Annie, Seville, and Brushy Creek are all Keefe brands, and if you know someone who recognizes them, it’s because they’ve been a prisoner.

Aside from the products shown above, a variety of junk food, condiments, clothing, hygiene products, and more are available in the in-house commissary. Most can be bought with money on your books (although different items will be available for adults, kids, and prisons versus jails). Some rare items can only be found in Keefe internet packs, which are ordered for the inmates by people on the outside.

Depending on your financial situation, you should diversify your funds as much as possible in jail. This means having internet packs sent, money on your books, and commissary on hand only sparingly and with a decent variety.

Personally, I’m always booked and leave indigent (meaning I have less than $10 on me). Some people come in with $3000 in cash, so we all have our own plans. Commissary items are used as in-house currency (typically referred to as “one item,” although ramen soup is also a typical “dollar” everywhere but Maricopa, where hot water isn’t available).

In Pima County, coffee and soups were the preferred commissary items. In Maricopa, it was tortillas and pretzel bits. Candy was especially coveted (and overpriced) in both jails. As a matter of fact, everything was – a $0.12 package of ramen is being bought in bulk for closer to $0.02 and sold in the penal system for $1.20 (plus service charges). How ridiculous is that?

If you do have commissary though, you can participate in spreads, which are homemade meals in prison.

Popular Arizona Prison Spreads

Regardless of whether you have state-issued trays or commissary food, there’s likely someone around you making a spread. In fact, if you’re really feeling froggy, you can partake in any of the shared drug and alcohol experiences on the inside.

I’m not snitching on the top-secret prison hooch recipe – I’m just sharing a few of my favorite recipes from my time in Arizona’s county jails.

Tent City Indigent Cake

State-issued peanut butter
State-issued ginger snaps
State-issued milk

Indigent cake is named so because anybody can contribute by simply not eating one piece of their sorry breakfast. As a trustee, it’s also the best part of your day.

Crush ginger snaps in package and pour into state-issued breakfast bag. Stir in peanut butter. Slowly add milk and kneed package until consistency of peanut butter cookie dough.

On special occasions (i.e. birthdays and holidays), look for indigent cakes topped with chocolate and more.

Maricopa Burrito

Commissary pork rinds
Commissary pretzels
Cactus Annie squeeze cheese
Commissary chicken
Commissary summer sausage
Commissary tortillas
Hot water

The burrito is the entry-level Maricopa spread. To make, crush all ingredients in individual packages (summer sausage must be cut somehow). Mix together in state-issued breakfast bag then add hot water and mix more. Let sit until pork rinds and pretzels no longer crunch. Spread onto tortillas, wrap, and enjoy.

To adapt to a Tucson Tamale, remove pretzels and replace tortilla with Fritos/Cheetos mix. Crush the Fritos/Cheetos and mix with hot water. Knead until consistent and let sit on hot lamp for up to an hour.

Pima Cadillac Coffee

Commissary coffee
Commissary cappuccino
Commissary hot cocoa
Commissary creamers
State-issued milk
Hot water
Commissary candy bar/peanut butter

A Cadillac is the Cadillac of coffee…
Mix all available coffee/chocolate flavors and creamers. Add a chocolate bar or scoop of peanut butter for good measure. Add hot water until your cup is full. Stir, and enjoy.

County Chinese Food

Commissary spicy ramen (as many packages as people you intend to serve)
Commissary fruit punch Kool-Aid
Commissary hot sauce
Commissary chicken
Commissary summer sausage

This last one can be as spicy as you want it, and it’s a favorite in Pima County Jail. Chinese food starts with unflavored al dente ramen. Then you make a sweet and sour sauce using the red Kool-Aid and as many ramen spice packets and hot sauces as you prefer. Next, cut up summer sausage and mix with chicken. Add to ramen, pour sauce over, and stir.

And last but not least, let’s not forget the politics of where to sit and eat.

Where to Eat in Jail

Much like in school, where you sit to eat in jail/prison makes a difference. Everyone’s generally divided by race, so if you’re eating in a common room, look for people whose skin matches yours first. Then figure out which gangs are what within your race.

I mostly ate in my own bed/cell whenever possible. I live alone and don’t spend much time with a lot of people. It also helped to stay away from prison politics.

Be aware that trading food, albeit the most popular crime committed in jails and prisons, is still an infraction. They don’t want you sharing or being polite to other inmates. So wherever you sit, do so with conviction and don’t get yourself shanked over food.

And don’t steal food, even from the guards. That’s the fastest way to get smashed and fall off the top bunk. If you didn’t earn it, it’s not yours. If I’m missing any of your favorite jailhouse recipes, feel free to leave them in the comments below.


Dr. Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. You can find his work in Cracked, High Times, HuffPost, Lifewire, Forbes, Fast Company, and dozens of other places, although much of it is no longer under his name. Dr. Penny loves annoying fake media.

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