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Weekends Behind Bars

A Bake Sale Behind Bars

Nancy Mullane

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Inmate Bernard Moss holds the line at the gate.
(Nancy Mullane)
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What are weekends like for the more than two million Americans living their lives behind bars? Most of them are biding their time, waiting to get out. But that attitude doesn't work for inmates serving life sentences. Lifers have to prove to a parole board they've rehabilitated themselves and they're no longer a threat to society before they get out.

So they take education classes and get counseling. As a result, less than one percent of lifers who are paroled ever return to prison.

A typical Saturday in San Quentin Prison in Northern California involves events in which prisoners serving life sentences raise money to fund rehabilitation programs on the inside and community organizations on the outside, and Saturday food sales are the most popular fund raisers of all.

No one goes to prison for the food, but food sales are an exception to and a welcome reprieve from the drab cafeteria stuff usually served up. When there's a weekend food sale, inmates work with their sponsors to sell restaurant and other food from the outside to fellow prisoners--kind of like a bake sale behind bars, a Thanksgiving feast and Fourth of July barbeque all rolled up into one Saturday afternoon.

Ernest Morgan is serving a life sentence inside San Quentin State Prison. He was convicted of murder and sent to prison when he was 18 years old. That was 21 years ago. Five years ago, he helped start a national program inside the prison called T.R.U.S.T. Morgan says the food sales help keep the peace inside prison, "It's good for the men because it's a day they get to eat something that's not on the institutional menu, which is a blessing."

T.R.U.S.T. stands for Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training. The men in the program get together every week with a psychologist to practice communication skills, and brush up on common courtesies. Morgan says it's the kind of things most people on the outside take for granted but are crucial skills for inmates trying keep the peace inside prison, or prove to a parole board they'd be OK if they were let out.

Morgan says he and the other inmates in the program choose just the right food from vendors on the outside for a successful food sale.

"We pick a lot of food for the men in the population to order from. They have a $100 limit they can go wild within that $100," he says.

Saving up $100 inside prison can take a very long time. Most prisoners only keep part of the 15 cents an hour they make working in the prison industry. That means one chicken dinner can cost 100 hours of labor. According to Morgan, that doesn't stop more than 300 prisoners from filling out order forms for "Barbecued ribs, famous Dave's fried chicken, fried shrimp, fried red snapper and the all-time best seller, caramel apple lollipops."

On the day of the food sale, there's so much food to count and package up, volunteers from local universities come to help the inmates in the T.R.U.S.T. program.

Volunteer Amy Smith is an assistant professor at San Francisco State University and says she enjoys helping out with the fundraisers. "Often taxpayers and folks in the community think about incarcerated men and incarcerated folks in general as taking from society and drawing from society and the taxpayers, and here's a really concrete example of them giving back in a very specific and very powerful way. And I want to be a part of it."

The food sale is also a time for inmates in the T.R.U.S.T. program to socialize with people from the outside and practice the social graces that can be hard to maintain on the prison yard. But the mingling can be awkward.

At first, the prisoners keep to themselves, and so do the volunteers. Ernest Morgan, the program coordinator, calls everyone together in a big circle and introduces himself.

"Everybody that's here for the first time, thank you very much for coming to our food sale. ... Meet someone you haven't met before. Don't leave this prison without knowing or having a new friend," he says.

When a bright red truck with "Famous Dave's Barbeque" written on the side pulls into the prison yard, everyone takes notice. Inmates and volunteers form a line from the truck to the tables and pass the hot aluminum trays like a bucket brigade.

For hours, the incarcerated men and free students work side-by-side, counting chicken wings and chocolate bars and saying "please" and "thank you." The prisoners teach the students gang handshakes. They also ask about dating on the outside and who pays when a man and a woman go out for dinner. The student says the cost of the dinner is split 50/50.

By mid-day, the prisoners outside the center get anxious for their food orders. Bernard Moss is an inmate whose job it is to guard the gate separating the area where the orders are being put together from the prisoners waiting on the yard. He says, "It's a madhouse. The men are very upset." Then he's given the word. It's time to hand out the orders. Moss stands up and calls out the first names, "Scraggings, William."

It takes about two hours for all of the orders to be filled. Then the team of inmates and volunteers breathe a sign of relief. They look exhausted but rally when one of them calls for a group photo. They all gather together.

The group raised hundreds of dollars. But more important than the money raised is what's captured in the photo. Inmates and folks from the outside smiling and talking together on one long summer day.

More stories from our Weekends Behind Bars series

Comments

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  • By Patty Hernandez

    From Port Deposit, MD, 12/11/2010

    I think it's awesome that the prisioners get to buy some good food.But I think it's awful that the prisioners are paid 15 cents an hour. You have taken away any dignity they have left.Being the mother of an imate I hear all the time how awful the food is and since they won't let my son go to work release I sent him money for food which makes in hard for me.But i love my son and I now he is innocent of the charges.But when you don't have money for a good lawyer you don't stand a chance.I think they need more programs in prison. Give they prisioners a reason to want to change instead of just treaing them like animals. Sure I know their are some men in their that should never even be let out of thir cell but their are others and alot of them who just need some love and guidance.They need some=thing to hope for.You come out of prison and no one wants to hire you because you've been in prison so what happens they end up back in prison.Some-thing is wrong with this picture.People want to complain because they are costing them money and they want to give them a chance on the out-side.I could go on an on.But am great-ful that at least in one prison at least some of the prisioners have some-thing to hope for.

    By Patty Hernandez

    From Port Deposit, MD, 12/11/2010

    I think it's awesome that the prisioners get to buy some good food.But I think it's awful that the prisioners are paid 15 cents an hour. You have taken away any dignity they have left.Being the mother of an imate I hear all the time how awful the food is and since they won't let my son go to work release I sent him money for food which makes in hard for me.But i love my son and I now he is innocent of the charges.But when you don't have money for a good lawyer you don't stand a chance.I think they need more programs in prison. Give they prisioners a reason to want to change instead of just treaing them like animals. Sure I know their are some men in their that should never even be let out of thir cell but their are others and alot of them who just need some love and guidance.They need some=thing to hope for.You come out of prison and no one wants to hire you because you've been in prison so what happens they end up back in prison.Some-thing is wrong with this picture.People want to complain because they are costing them money and they want to give them a chance on the out-side.I could go on an on.But am great-ful that at least in one prison at least some of the prisioners have some-thing to hope for.

    By kesha lachaux

    From sacramento, CA, 09/23/2010

    I am a friend of ernest morgan i met ernest when we were teenagers...i am very proud to hear of all the good he has been doing...very proud!and to lance, your brother is a very good man!

    By angel p

    From coral springs, FL, 03/06/2009

    I agree with you Lance, your brother is doing a great thing. If only people took any iniative with the incarcerated population this world would be a better place. I saw him on Dr. Phil and he trully is inspiring. Tell him he has fans, yes fans, because he is a hero!

    By Lance Morgan

    From sausalito, CA, 11/14/2008

    I would like to thank you for shedding light on the positive things inmates are involved in. It is all too familiar to heir society shun and depict them as hopeless criminals witch obviously is not the case. I couldn't be prouder of MY BROTHER ERNEST MORGAN for the changes he has made and the determination he has to better his life and the lives around him. He is a true inspiration for both inmates and civilians. Thanks again, peace.

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