Thanks be for turkey dinner behind bars
By James Alan Fox
Monday, November 28, 2005  

 As a left-leaning criminologist, I find there is never a short supply of conservative-style squawking about the "criminal-coddling" justice system to get me going. Yet one particularly absurd conjecture served up years ago by a local syndicated scribe has stuck in my craw: That the amenities of life behind bars - including the lavish Thanksgiving dinners and cable TV - contribute to the high rate of recidivism.

As I prepared for what is my favorite day of the year (featuring football, food and family), I began thinking about what those coddled criminals were doing for their Turkey Day. Is it really special from the usual turnkey days of the rest of the year?

I decided to make a field trip - a pilgrimage of sorts - to check out the jailhouse festivities. Fortunately, the Norfolk County House of Correction (the "median security" lockup situated on the strip between the north and south lanes of Route 128) had room for one more for dinner.

The menu was fairly traditional, including carved jail bird (white meat only) with seasoned stuffing (made with bread and water, of course) and cranberry sauce. The inmates were not given any choices over turkey parts, I guess to avoid any fights over the drumsticks.

Rob Ogden ate in the jail's drug and alcohol treatment unit. The 43-year-old convict serving time for assault and battery compared his experiences in Norfolk County with the time he spent in jail back in his native Mississippi. In Mississippi, Thanksgiving was basically a lock-down day - no turkey, no television.

While admitting that the hard line approach might scare some men from future offending, Ogden minimized its impact. "Criminals are used to abusive situations," he insisted. "They respond better when approached with dignity and a bit of compassion."

It was Mahatma Gandhi who observed that a society's moral progress could be judged by how its weakest members were treated. In the spirit of the holiday, I suggest that we might judge our moral progress by how we feed our inmates. The "let them have bread and water" crowd would have life behind bars be as miserable and oppressive as possible. However, the punishment of incarceration is deprivation of liberty, not deprivation of humanity.

For some perspective on my jailhouse experience, I called around to ask about Thanksgiving activities elsewhere. Inmates in the culinary arts program at Riker's Island in New York cooked 100 stuffed turkeys, which they then delivered (under armed escort) to church organizations for feeding the homeless. The inmates, I am told, felt good about doing something for those less fortunate.

By contrast, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., made only a slight concession for the holiday - allowing the inmates to have pepper with their meal. The maverick lawman, legendary for forcing convicts to wear pink underwear and sleep in tents, proudly described his no-frills approach to feeding the inmates, spending half as much per day on their meals as on those for the dogs and cats housed in shelters.

Arpaio's strategy has some historical precedence. Professor Richard Moran of Mt. Holyoke College, citing the "principle of less eligibility" from 19th century England's Poor Laws, notes that conditions in jail cannot be better than in the slums, or else people will commit crimes to get there.

My Thanksgiving meal at the Norfolk County House of Corrections was surprisingly tasty - my compliments to Chief Steward John Morse. Still it was hardly lavish to the point where I would expect throngs of ex-cons to be banging on the bars trying to return in time for Christmas dinner.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at