The Paring-Down of Prison Dinners

The incarcerated once enjoyed boundless holiday feasts. Not anymore.

When a convicted killer, a burglar, and an auto thief decided to escape from New Jersey's state prison in 1937, they carefully fashioned shovels from scrap metal and scrupulously stashed the dirt they excavated from an eight-foot tunnel that led beyond the prison's front gate. But the trio chose the wrong date to crawl to freedom.

Guards became suspicious when the prisoners didn't show up for Christmas dinner, a meal so lavish that only fools and connivers would miss it. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prisons typically marked the holiday with spreads envied by law-abiding eaters. "You've won your case, but you've lost your turkey," a Brooklyn magistrate chastised a group of homeless men who fought a loitering charge just before Christmas 1938.

Feasts were often supplemented by entertainment; the Broadway show Sinners, the story of a girl who gives up honest living for cocktail drinking, premiered at Sing Sing in 1914. But even wardens who didn't think minstrelsy and ventriloquism were compatible with a religious holiday treated their charges to enormous dinners. In 1907, Sing Sing's 1,400 inmates—who often subsisted on coffee and stale bread—were served 1,100 pounds of fricasseed chicken, 15 barrels of potatoes, two barrels of mashed turnips, 200 pounds of sweet crackers, 400 pounds of cheese, 100 pounds of cocoa, and all the hot biscuits, butter, and cinnamon buns they wanted. Each man was sent back to his cell with two cigars and a mince pie.

A spokesman for the Washington State Department of Corrections says meals have been scaled back significantly since the days when offenders could count on limitless servings of roasted duck, corned beef, lemon crackers, plum pudding, and cake come Christmas. According to Chad Lewis, inmates will receive an individual apple pie. The remainder of the menu will be repeated from Thanksgiving: A standard portion consists of one cup of salad; two mandarin oranges; 6 ounces of turkey or roast beef, dressing, and mashed potatoes; 4 ounces of green beans, gravy, and sweet potatoes; 2 ounces of cranberry sauce and salad dressing; and a dinner roll with two pats of butter.

"I don't know if I'd call them feasts," Lewis says.

In the late 1800s, prison wardens risked public sanction if they deprived inmates of a full-fledged holiday meal. When The New York Times in 1865 discovered the city's prison served bread and molasses-sweetened coffee on Christmas, the paper reassured readers that "We put in a plea for next year that a special appropriation be made for all concerned."

There's no record of what was being served in Trenton when guards yanked the prison's would-be escapees out of their improvised tunnel. But the crooks didn't miss the meal. As The New York Times reported, "All three were put in solitary confinement and then were given their Christmas dinner."

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