It's a Friday evening and I'm sitting in the officer's dining room at the Hamilton County Corrections Center downtown, in front of a scuffed plastic tray of inmate food. The tabletop is greasy. When I lean on it to reach for a packet of salt, my elbows stick. It's cold and windy outside on Sycamore Street, but inside the jail it is quiet and warm. After passing through a metal detector, past a guard station encased with bulletproof glass and through a couple of several-inch-thick steel doors studded with rivets, it's almost impossible to glean any information from the outside world. In the officer's dining room, it smells of floor wax, disinfectant and cooking oil -- or like every school, hospital or community center I have ever been in.
What distinguishes this dining room from every school, hospital or community center I have ever been in, are the 722 inmates housed on the four floors of cells located directly above my head. We are in the big house -- the Gray Bar Hotel. And it's almost 6 p.m., which means that 723 of us are currently sitting in front of identical molded plastic trays, filled with identical servings of food.
"It's spicy chicken," says Sheriff's Deputy Levering, pointing at a thin round breaded patty on my tray. "The chicken is real good," he says, and then turns his head slightly and, into the static of his radio, says, "Copy ... go for 12."
He continues, "Yeah, the chicken is real good. The cookies are good, too. We just started making them in-house about four months ago." Next to the spicy chicken patty is a pool of noodles in tomato sauce. Levering then points to another of the tray's four compartments.
"I'm not sure if those are mustard greens or collard greens," he says. "They, sort of, alternate between the two."
At that moment, Lieutenant Scheffler arrives to watch me eat an unpleasant, watery spoonful of greens, which neither salt nor pepper improves. Scheffler called me a couple of days earlier to tell me Sheriff Simon L.
Leis Jr. had approved my visit to the jail on one condition: that I also eat the disciplinary meal, known as "DBU," served to inmates on lock-down for bad behavior.
"DBU," Scheffler had said gleefully over the phone, enjoying the stipulation perhaps a little more than he should. "It's actually called a nutriloaf," he said. "It's not very palatable. It's called DBU because it used to be fed on the Disruptive Behavior Unit. We don't have those anymore, but the name just stuck."
And now, in the officer's dining room, on the first floor of the Hamilton County Corrections Center, Scheffler pulls a chair away from the table and lowers himself into it, smiling broadly. Sitting conspicuously by on the tabletop, is a large Styrofoam container. On its lid, in black pen, are three chilling letters: "DBU."
"The kitchen staff makes the DBU daily," says Scheffler. "They make a big vat of it," he says, "and they freeze it. When they need 'em, they bring 'em out, and they cook 'em." In fact, on the day of my visit, 723 of us are not receiving identical trays of food. Instead, as punishment for their unruly behavior, 24 inmates are receiving DBU.
"They get it for every meal," says Levering, "and they can receive it for up to 10 days. On average, for the minor stuff, it's usually about five days. If it's a fight, it's usually about 10 days."
One fight: 10 days of lock-down, 30 DBU meals.
I concentrate instead on the dinner in front of me. In the third compartment of my plastic tray is a single cookie, about the diameter of a golf ball, which I have decided to save until the end of my meal. In the fourth compartment are two slices of wheat bread, a packet each of salt and pepper, and a single plastic spoon that has been scraped through butter, which now slowly melts in the spoon's bowl. When you have to use a plastic spoon to smear butter directly on to your bread, you're either camping or you're staying in the Gray Bar Hotel.
Nevertheless, the food is surprisingly good. The pressed meat of the chicken patty is moist and flecked with crushed red pepper, which gives it a pleasant spiciness that warms the mouth. The noodles are made of thick, pale ribbons of pasta, and the tomato sauce is rich and filling. The bread is fresh and warm. Only the greens are tasteless and unappetizing, sitting in a shallow pool of tepid light-green water.
Finally, I open the Styrofoam container. Inside are two 9-ounce, almost-circular patties of DBU, each measuring about 6 inches across, and three slices of wheat bread. The DBU is warm, and the bread is soggy with condensation. It's difficult to describe exactly what DBU looks like. Here's one way: the next time it rains, go out to your backyard, scoop up a handful of thick mud and hold it in your palm at arm's length. Then, quickly invert your palm so that the mud falls with a wet splat to the floor. The result will look like DBU -- more so, or less so, depending on the soil type in your backyard.
An inmate can receive DBU for a wide range of infractions, says Scheffler. "They can disobey an order," he says, still seated next to me. "They can get in a fight. They can refuse to clean their room."
As Lt. Scheffler leaves for his duties upstairs, I take my first bite of DBU. Deputy Levering returns from the kitchen with a piece of paper, which he carefully lays down on the table. On it, are written the ingredients of DBU: carrots, cabbage, onion, eggs, beans (pinto), salt, ground turkey, tomatoes, flour, milk, oats.
I chew. And it's not bad. Relieved, I slowly nod my approval to Levering. The first thing that comes to mind is a vegetarian burger; in fact, I've paid for veggie burgers in restaurants that have less flavor than a wrinkled DBU patty. The rust-brown color of its tough outer skin -- like its lighter orange, fluffy interior -- is caused by the carrots, which represent the largest proportion of its ingredients. It's slightly off-putting, but the taste is pleasant enough, clearly blended with cabbage and onions. Also detectable is the bland neutrality of the potatoes, beans, flour, and oats -- added to give the DBU texture. I take a few more bites and tell Levering that I like it.
"When I work up on the floors, a lot of times people will volunteer to eat those," he says, pointing at the DBU patties. "That'll actually fill you up more than one of those trays. It actually makes you feel fuller."
And he's right. After a regular inmate meal, followed by a 9-ounce DBU patty, I am full. With Deputy Levering's bemused permission, I close the lid on the remaining patty, and I do something that my 722 dining companions cannot: I walk back out the way I came in, through a couple of several-inch-thick steel doors studded with rivets, past the guard station encased with bulletproof glass and through the metal detector.
Then I exit, my DBU tucked under my arm, onto the windy street outside, thinking already, about supper. ©