Prison Food That You'll Actually Want To Try

Do you remember how gross your old elementary school cafeteria meals used to be? Mystery meats and succotash, with maybe a little blob of semi dried-out jello. Well, imagine having to eat that three meals of that a day, every day, with no option to brown bag it. That's pretty much what it's like for prison inmates. According to Reason, dissatisfaction with prison food has been a contributing factor to numerous prison riots, including the deadly one at Attica.

What inmates do have access to is a prison commissary which sells a limited number of food items such as canned goods, drinks, and snack foods. These items can be purchased with funds added to an inmate's account by friends or family on the outside, or by the tiny amount of money the inmate is paid for their assigned job — the Zoukis Consulting Group reports this to be about $10 to $20 per month for federal inmates.

Should you ever find yourself on the wrong side of prison bars, as even sports stars and other famous folks have been known to do, learning how to make the most of your commissary items may keep your taste buds from dying a slow death from boredom when your 85th meal of Friday fishwiches rolls around. If you're not a celebrity chef inmate, you probably won't have unlimited access to the prison kitchen, so all these recipes can be prepared using the cell block microwave and improvised cooking tools and utensils like flattened can lids and trash bags.

Chi Chi/Batches/Swolls

Whether it goes by Chi Chi, Batches (via Prison Talk), Swolls, or any other name, this dish may be the stone soup of prison cuisine. One or more inmates contribute packets of ramen, while others bring whatever they've got.

One former inmate at Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institution at Graterford supplied The Philadelphia Inquirer with a Chi Chi recipe that includes two kinds of meat — summer sausage and pepeproni — as well as canned chili, pickles, cheese curls, barbecue sauce, honey and chili powder. Sounds a little...unusual, and yet nevertheless the reporter described the results as "utter deliciousness," with the noodles being "softened by the chili, barbecue sauce and honey [with] the cheese curls provid[ing] a hint of crunch [and t]he pepperoni and sausage g[iving] it texture. "

Creative Snacks, Meals, Beverages and Desserts You Can Make Behind Bars by inmate-turned-author Kevin Bullington provides a comprehensive list of ramen add-ins that can be mixed and matched to come up with what he calls Swolls: meats including bacon, fried chicken, hamburger steak, turkey, sausage, summer sausage, and sausage patties; canned foods including chili and tuna; veggies such as jalapenos, onions, green peppers, and pickles; cheddar, pepper jack, or squeeze cheeses; and crunchy stuff like cheese crackers and Cheetos. Not all of these items (particularly the meats) may be available for commissary purchase, so those will have to be contributed by kitchen workers with a knack for smuggling.

Ramen sandwiches

A surprising amount of prison snacks are ramen-based, as that's one item that seems to be always available and usually affordable in any prison commissary. Prison Spreads 101: Prison food, culture and recipes by Andrew Bolsinger, an author who claims to have lost 100 pounds while locked down, concocted a ramen sandwich recipe that seems to have predated last decade's whole ramen burger trend.

Bolsinger's recipe calls for mixing a packet of tuna with half a garlic pickle and a pepperoni stick (a flattened can lid could be used for chopping these, as could the plastic ruler the author suggests) and stirring in just two to four packets of mayonnaise. As Bolsinger says, "Most moms use WAY too much mayo on tuna," (yes, even inmates have moms). Season with an equal amount of mustard, a dollop of chili garlic sauce, and either contraband salt and pepper or else about half the seasoning packet from the ramen noodles.

The noodles themselves — two packets of these — are softened in a pitcher of hot water, then opened up like a sandwich. Each half of the "sandwich" is then spread with cheese spread — the recipe calls for City Cow, which is a brand evidently sold exclusively in prisons (via Quora). The tuna/pepperoni mix is piled on, then sprinkled with smashed Flamin' Hot Cheetos before being folded back into sandwich shape. As with any gourmet creation, these sandwiches need to rest a few moments to let the flavors blend.

Two rappers, two casseroles

Ja Rule, appearing on an episode of Hot Ones, shared some crazy stuff from his not uneventful life, including a favorite jailhouse recipe of his from back when he was serving time for weapons possession and hardcore tax evasion (via FoodBeast). As Ja told host Sean Evans while working on wing number two (sauced with Cholula), his favorite prison meal hack involved cooking — guess what? — ramen noodles, then adding Jack Mack (canned mackerel) and sweet-and-sour sauce to make what he called "a noodle fish casserole type of thing."

The late Albert "Prodigy" Johnson of Mobb Deep also served time, three and a half years on Riker's Island for a weapons charge (but no tax cheating). While locked down, he came up with enough recipes to publish the book entitled Commissary Kitchen (via First We Feast). His "Don't Try This at Home Prison Surprise" casserole also involves ramen noodles topped with Jack Mack, but instead of sweet and sour sauce, it's seasoned with hot sauce and crushed Doritos. The Doritos, which P said can also be replaced with cheese crackers or actual cheese, are mixed in with the boiling noodles to form a cheesy kind of sauce. The Jack Mack can also be subbed out with tuna, resulting in a tuna casserole that Betty Crocker would... well, maybe not be proud to call her own, but she might manage a few bites.

Orange porkies

Orange Porkies, which is, you got it, yet another ramen creation, comes from a book called Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars by Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo "Goose" Alvarez. As Alvarez told Peter O'Dowd, host of WBUR's Here & Now, ramen noodles are "everybody's staple in prison. No matter who you are, you're cooking with ramen." This particular ramen-based dish is somewhat reminiscent of Panda Express's orange chicken, at least if that dish were made without chicken. And with pork rinds.

To make this dish, you crush your ramen noodles, cook them in hot water, then drain. (Save the seasoning packet for another use — when it comes to prison cuisine, there will always be another use.) Mix in a cup of cooked white rice. Make the orange sauce out of a few tablespoons of unsweetened orange Kool-Aid powder mixed with a little hot water. Toss the pork skins in the orange sauce until they're all coated with the stuff, then microwave them for about five minutes until they puff up. Serve the orange-y pork skins on a bed of rice-a-ramen. It ain't P.F. Chang's, but it's edible.

Tamales

Ramen and pork rinds meet up once more in the tamale recipe from in Alvarez's Prison Ramen cookbook. This dish starts off with two packets of beef ramen, which are crushed and then added along with just one of the seasoning packets to a bag of spicy pork rinds — these rinds having also been crushed prior to opening the bag. About half a cup of refried beans also goes into the rinds bag, along with two small bags of crushed corn chips and a cup and a half of boiling water. All the ingredients are mixed, then the pork rinds bag is folded closed and a towel is wrapped around it to seal in the heat. After the "tamale" sits for about half an hour, it's removed from the bag and doused with squeezable cheese.

A much simpler, if more dubious-sounding, tamale recipe comes from the CorrectionsOne website. To make these Jailhouse Tamales, crush up one bag of Fritos and another of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Doritos, or another spicy chip. Mix the crumbs in one bag with enough hot water to form a thick mush, then knead, drain off excess water, and roll into a more-or-less tamale shape. Let sit for about 5 minutes, peel off the bag, and serve the resulting more-or-less food-like object with plenty of hot sauce (you'll need it).

Pizza

Another recipe that comes in ramen and ramen-free versions is one for prison pizza. The former version, which comes courtesy of CorrectionsOne, includes a crust made from crushed ramen and crackers. These ingredients are blended with hot water to form a paste which is then shaped into a circular pizza crust (except for inmates from Detroit, who presumably make their crusts square as per their region's pizza preference). This ramen crust is then topped with salsa, squeeze cheese, summer sausage, or any other vaguely pizza topping-like ingredients on hand.

A fancier version provided by Kevin Bullington, involves making a personal pan pizza from tortillas which are glued together with squeeze cheese to form a thicker crust (perhaps he's from Chicago). The sauce is formulated from ketchup mixed with crushed cheese crackers and more squeeze cheese, and real shredded cheese is used on top. The pièce de résistance? Summer sausage and pepperoni that have been sliced and heated in the microwave, the appliance which is also used to melt the pizza's cheese topping. Bullington claims it's "fun to make and good to eat," or at least good enough "to get that [pizza] monkey off [your] back."

Nachos

Bullington's recipe for prison nachos, amazingly enough, contain no ramen noodles whatsoever! He claims this recipe is something that is usually only made on special occasions like for sports games. Basically, it just involves taking a bag of tortilla chips, opening it up, and topping it with canned chili and refried beans which have been heated in the microwave (he suggests mixing the refried beans with a little water to make them easier to spread). Squeeze cheese again comes into play, mixed with a little diced onion and green pepper if available, and also heated up in the microwave, veggies included, until of pourable consistency. For some reason, Bullington chose to top his nachos with diced pickles instead of salsa or jalapenos, but his Amazon bio indicates he apparently survived long enough to publish a second book, so perhaps his podmates were also pickle fans. 

Or maybe pickle nachos are just a prison thing, since an inmate named Charlie Evans posted on Facebook his own, much simpler recipe for prison nachos: "Chili/ nacho chips/ cheese/ summer sag/ pickle/ onions/ wit .. Refried beans." No amounts or directions given, but none really necessary, although the accompanying photo seems to show the nachos as having been heated up in a styrofoam tray.

Cake

In prison, there's always time for dessert. If you're lucky enough to have a cellie who likes (or fears) you enough to make you a cake, Business Insider shares one way they might go about doing so. This recipe comes from Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and according to the inmate who supplied it, was only made for special occasions such as birthdays or release dates (the latter of which must have come around fairly frequently, as jails, unlike prisons, only house inmates for relatively short periods of time).

It involves taking a whole package of peanut butter cookies, separating the cookies from the filling, and crushing the cookies to a powder before adding enough water to make a dough. A package of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups is then broken up and mixed with the peanut butter cookie filling along with two scoops of powdered cappuccino mix and a little water. This mixture is heated in the microwave until melted. The cake is formed by alternating layers of dough – pressed into the tray in which the cookies originally came – and peanut butter filling. For the topping, a Hershey bar is placed in a cup of hot water until it melts, then squeezed over the entire cake. The final touch is a scoop of peanut butter melted in the microwave and drizzled over the top. The cake is then placed on top of a bowl full of ice for two hours until it sets.

More cake (of sorts)

Another no-bake dessert that can be DIYed from commissary items is something that Foodbeast calls Correctional Cake, although "cake" is stretching matters a bit. This recipe has just three ingredients: an entire full-size package of Oreos, a standard-sized jar of peanut butter, and a large bag of M&Ms.To sum up the instructional video (minus gratuitous use of the word sh*t, since that sh*t gets old fast), you separate the Oreo cookies from the filling, then crush the former and set aside. Mix the filling with peanut butter — no measurements are given, but it appeared to be about half the jar. Perhaps the whole jar, depending on what consistency you want. In this cake, exact proportions aren't exactly crucial for a successful outcome. 

Sprinkle the peanut butter mixture with M&Ms. Add some water to the crushed Oreo crumbs and mix— again, no amount is specified, but you want the resulting mixture to be something you can then squeeze out on top of the peanut butter. Spread the Oreo mix over the top of the peanut butter like it's frosting, top with more M&Ms, then eat this not really all that cake-like substance like it's a pudding.

Cheesecake

While cream cheese is hard to come by in prison, as it's not an item stocked by most commissaries, inmates nevertheless manage to make mock cheesecakes. Piper Kiernan, author of the book Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women's Prison — the book that was turned into that hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black, shared with NPR a recipe for prison cheesecake that she learned from a fellow inmate. This cheesecake has the typical graham cracker crust — crumbs mixed with margarine smuggled out of the dining hall. Just four pats of the latter, so not the kind of serious contraband likely to land you a stint in the SHU (secure housing unit, formerly known as solitary). The filling is made from an entire round of Laughing Cow cheese wedges, smashed up and mixed with the contents of a vanilla pudding cup, an entire container of Cremora non-dairy creamer, and the juice from almost an entire plastic squeeze lemon. Once thoroughly mixed and beaten until stiff, the filling is poured into the crust and set atop a bucket of ice to chill until set.

Prison Talk's forum offers another cheesecake variant, this one using crushed oatmeal cream pies as the crust, with the filling made from powdered milk flavored with lemon "Kool Off" (commissary brand knockoff Kool-Aid) and half a can of lemon-lime soda, with strawberry or grape jelly spread on top.

Things with honey buns

One of the most popular items in any prison commissary is a honey bun of the Little Debbie variety. While honey buns are fairly cheap and readily available, they are in such high demand that inmates have brawled over them, used them as currency, and according to the St. Petersburg Times, even traded them for Social Security numbers that allowed Florida inmates to commit over a $1 million worth of tax fraud (via Awesome98!).

You know what else you can do with honey buns? Well, eat them, of course. Right out of the wrapper, if you're a honey bun purist, but if you're an aspiring jailhouse gourmet you can use them as the basis for a number of interesting inventions. Former inmate Justin Hager shared his favorite honey bun hack on Facebook: "Peanut butter, cream cheese, and mixed berry jelly frosting!" while Kevin Bullington used the humble honey bun as the center of a PBJ and also made honey bun melts by microwaving them with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and other candy bars. Sounds like a one-way ticket to Diabetes City, but then again, that's one way to shorten a life sentence.

Latte and Cappuccino

Since Starbucks has yet to open its first corrections-center based location, sometimes an inmate's just gotta improvise. CorrectionsOne suggests that the enterprising detainee make a lockdown latte by holding a carton of milk under hot running water until it's hot enough to start steaming, then adding three teaspoons of instant coffee and a packet of pancake syrup from the chow hall (breakfast leftovers). This drink needs to be served hot in order to be palatable — hot enough to dissolve the instant coffee, at least.

Kevin Bullington supplies a recipe for convict cappuccino that involves mixing four packets of instant coffee with four coffee creamers, two envelopes of instant hot chocolate with marshmallows, and six sugar packets. The man obviously appreciates a serious sugar buzz, since he also came up with an iced coffee that involves just two coffee packets but four hot chocolates (again with marshmallows) and 20 sugars. Guess if that's the closest you can get to living the sweet life, well, you go with what you got — and hope your facility provides decent dental care.

Pruno

Perhaps the most notorious of prison beverages is the highly illegal pruno, which also goes under the aliases of hooch, shine, or toilet wine (How Stuff Works reveals that this last nickname refers to the toilet tank in which it may be hidden). For obvious reasons, prison guards and wardens don't want the men or women who are so unwillingly under their control to have access to intoxicants. For also-obvious reasons, many reluctant detainees want nothing more than a good stiff drink... even to the point where they'll risk swallowing down potentially botulism-laced concoctions that might turn them into for-real stiffs.

If you, too, like to live dangerously, Commissary Kitchen suggests you get hold of some apples, oranges, mixed fruit cups, and bread, then mix it all up in a sealable bag "until it looks f***ing disgusting." Plop it into a bowl of boiling water courtesy of your cellblock microwave, wrap it in a t-shirt, then hide it somewhere the Correctional Officers will never think to look. Once the bag starts swelling up and looking scary in a few days' time, open it up and throw in some ketchup and sugar packets to appease the beast. Then fear the terrible monster you've created and flush this toilet wine before you're tempted to take even one experimental sip.