There's a five-week schedule of menus for all the prisons in Washington State. I don't usually know what's on the menu, though there are days when I know what's NOT on the menu. I look out the chapel windows to the yard enclosed by chain-link fence. Are there seagulls on the field? No chicken on the menu tonight.
You laugh. But it's true! When chicken is on the menu, the seagulls are not to be seen. Out of reverence for their cousins? or fear for their own lives? Hard to tell. Sometimes the seagulls are a thick crew. Other times, you'd never know they come around.
I'm aware of the limitations of the menu when the men complain about how small the meals seem, or how limited in calories, or how starchy it all is. Some make the effort to have a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet, but doing that is a job in itself and the menu is even more limited. And most can only get those diets if they practice a particular religion that has a specific diet. There are few of those.
In segregation, kosher meals are popular. They come packaged. Less chance of someone messing with a tray of food. For people who lean to the paranoid side of life, it just seems safer.
Some years ago, a group of inmates incorporated themselves in a new religion and then petitioned that their diet be recognized by the Department of Corrections. It was fairly simple, just an accommodation for Friday nights when they wanted to have steak and wine. It didn't happen. One of the rules is that your religion has to be recognized out in the public arena.
Every year, some of the Catholics and Episcopalians will ask about a special diet for Lent. Most of them aren't old enough to remember the days you could go to hell for having a hot dog on a Friday. There isn't a special diet for Catholics for Fridays in Lent, so what's a guy to do?
Because he has no control over the menu, he can: skip whatever meat is served, choose to give up something else, or realize that sometimes it is more of a penance to eat and be grateful for what is in front of him. Men choose what they can.
When we were a smoking institution, a number would give up smoking. But no one, including the staff, has smoked on the grounds in years.
At a Lenten gathering last week, some talked about giving up snacks from the store or writing a letter to loved ones without haranguing about "when will you send me money/pictures/a letter." One man is going on a virtual pilgrimage, saying one prayer for every mile between Shelton and Arlington National Cemetery where the Tomb of the Unknowns lies. He is a veteran, and I know the effort has meaning for him on various levels.
Meanwhile, we laugh about the seagulls and gripe about the menu. It's all good.