October 19, 2016
“I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate”: Recent prison writings
by Ryan Harrington
It’s a big season for book projects stemming from rappers’ time in prison. Last week Lil Wayne’s memoir of his eight months on Rikers Island—entitled Gone ’Til Novemeber—dropped. It has caught some criticism for getting bogged down by the monotony of prison life, and failing to address the culture of brutality that plagues our country’s prison system generally, and Rikers Island acutely.
Albert Johnson, better known as “Prodigy” from the hip-hop duo Mobb Deep, has made a more utilitarian contribution to prison literature in his recent release, Commissary Kitchen: My Infamous Prison Cookbook, co-written with Kathy Iandoli. In a piece on the book for Gothamist, Josh Keefe writes:
Commissary Kitchen is part cookbook, part survival guide, with just enough anecdotes to make it a sort of jailhouse memoir. It’s a slim 115 pages and contains recipes like “Shakira’s Dirty Pie,” “Sweet as Fuck Yams,” “Rasta Pasta,” “Fake-Ass Pad Thai” and “P’s Barbecue Salmon,” as well as stories about both thieving and generous corrections officers, raids on the guards’ private fridge, anonymous pen pal benefactors and painful holiday meals spent missing family.
During his three-year sentence, Prodigy had to think about his food intake more than most prisoners. This is because he suffers from from sickle cell anemia and requires exercise and vegetables to keep from getting sick. He would have his wife send him thirty cans of green vegetables a month.
Though it’s a cookbook built around just a handful of stale ingredients, Commissary Kitchen may still speak to the non-incarcerated. In fact, the prison cookbook is a cottage industry, often marketed to those living the austerity of dorm life, and a shockingly robust category of self-published material. In a piece for NPR, Tove Danovich writes:
And perhaps reading Commissary Kitchen and other prison cookbooks can “give people more of an understanding of the kind of people that are locked up in jail,” Prodigy says. “You have people there from all walks of life: people who made mistakes and have to deal with the consequences, mothers and fathers. You wouldn’t expect them to be behind bars.” But there they are, feeding themselves and just trying to get to know each other over a home-cooked meal.
Next up? Gucci Mane’s memoir, which has recently been announced by Simon and Schuster just days after his own release from incarceration.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.