By C.R. Addleman, Prison Journalism Project
In 2019, I served as a kitchen worker in the Progressive Programming Facility at the state prison in Lancaster, Calif. There was a waste bin we called Thumper the Talking Dumpster. We called it that because of the gurgling sound the waste made while it baked in the sun.
At Lancaster, we threw away a lot of food in the kitchen. That’s because we were threatened with a disciplinary write-up if we handed out extra food or took home extra for ourselves.
But this ban was not always enforced — and when it was, it was not enforced equally. So, as kitchen workers, we would sometimes try and sneak extra food for ourselves.
But one day, the guards reprimanded my Black co-worker for having the same amount of food in his bag that I had in mine. Just moments prior, they’d let me pass by without a word.
My co-worker was made to take a walk of shame to Thumper, and toss his food.
I forgot all about this until a few days ago, when I had finished my breakfast in the overcrowded dining hall of San Quentin State Prison — where I am no longer a kitchen worker.
This particular day was a “cheese slice” brown-bag lunch day. I wanted to try and snag an extra bag lunch, so I got back in line at breakfast, doing my best to be inconspicuous.
It was a success. I patted myself on the back for my stealthiness.
Soon after, I showed up to my job as a peer literacy mentor. It was a discussion day.
My co-worker — an elderly Black man — began to tell us about something that had happened to him that morning at breakfast.
Being someone who takes COVID-19 as seriously as we all should, he entered the crowded chow hall wearing his N-95 mask. He sat and enjoyed his breakfast, just as I had. Then he got up to dump his tray, grab his lunch and prepare for a full day of mentoring other inmates.
However, before he could grab a lunch bag, he was stopped by a white corrections officer.
“The officer yells at me to stop, and tells me to take off my mask, so I did,” my friend said. “He then tells me he’s been watching me eat and knows this is my second time in line.”
My co-mentor choked up with emotion.
“I put the lunch back and sat down for a moment and tried to collect myself,” the man said. “And when I got up to apologize, the officer took an aggressive stance as he reached towards his mace and his alarm. In that moment, I stepped back and apologized.
“I admitted to something I didn’t even do and went without a lunch just to put the incident behind me,” he said.
The man could not hold back his tears. We all listened in silence.
I thought about how different my morning went. And in that moment I was reminded of that time at Lancaster, when I also had experienced the opposite of what a Black co-worker experienced, when I flew below the radar and got away with an infraction.
My fellow mentor continued to share his story: “Once the officer heard me apologize, he tells me to ‘get the f— out of here.’ So I left.”
My friend took the high road and walked away, accepting responsibility for this white officer’s “misunderstanding,” when in reality he had done nothing wrong. When I walk through the chow hall and eat twice, I go unnoticed, as if being white is equivalent to wearing camouflage in the jungle.
As a result of this encounter, my friend now has a behavioral write-up he must explain to the parole board when he appears before them next year.
It was sobering to see my friend cry. It was also sobering to imagine all the ways that being white benefits me — even in prison.
This story was originally published by Prison Journalism Project.
C.R. Addleman is a writer incarcerated at Centinela State Prison in California.