Get your twice-weekly fix of features, commentary, and insight from the frontlines of American food.
As global protests broke out in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Michael Thompson was feeling the way many Americans did: He wanted to gather with others to demand respect for Black personhood, pay tribute to a man’s too-short life, and condemn the unjust conditions that ended it. But as an inmate at the Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan, it wouldn’t be easy for Thompson to do that. At correctional facilities across the U.S., staff concerned about violence had cut prisoners’ access to media. His own facility already prohibits gatherings in order to curb gang activity. “We can’t even congregate,” he told The Counter.
Editor’s note: Michael Thompson’s fears about becoming sick have been realized. Since this story was filed, the outbreak of Covid-19 at Muskegon Correctional Facility has worsened, with more than 100 cases confirmed inside the prison to date. In late July, Thompson was hospitalized with symptoms of the virus, and subsequently tested positive. Robert Cannon, Jr., a second source for this story, has also contracted the virus.
Thompson says he’s feeling weak, but promises to beat the virus because “I am a fighter.” It doesn’t help that the food at the prison hospital is inedible, Thompson reports. This week, he told the prison reform activist Deedee Kirkwood that he is “completely without energy” and the facility feels like “a crazy house.”
Thompson sat down with his friend and fellow inmate, Robert Cannon, Jr., and the pair mulled their options. The two men often speak about politics and social justice issues, including the problems they see firsthand in America’s criminal justice system. Thompson is already something of a cause célèbre for activists lobbying against long sentences for non-violent offenders: He is 25 years into a 40- to 60-year sentence for selling marijuana in Michigan, a state where cannabis is now legal. Calls for his release recently came from the state’s Attorney General, Dana Nessel, who this week sent a letter to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, expressing support for the commutation of Thompson’s sentence. When two men in the facility tested positive for Covid-19, Thompson felt seriously concerned—he is 69 years old and suffers from diabetes, factors that make him especially susceptible to grave illness or even death if he is exposed.
As the unrest continued outside, Thompson came up with a way to mark Floyd’s death inside: a special meal that he’d share with the inmates in a “celebration” honoring Floyd’s life. Because the state facility is a Level II, medium-security prison, the inmates have free movement throughout the housing unit, with the exception of mandatory counts four times a day. They also have access to a microwave—not an ideal kitchen tool for preparing a large-scale meal, but it would have to do.
“The meal is our special way of honoring him,” Cannon, Jr. said. He has been in prison for 36 years, the result of a fist fight that ended in a man’s death when Cannon was 25. Now 61 years old, he is serving a 50- to 75-year sentence.
As the two men spread word of their event through the facility, it became clear that interest was nearly universal. But feeding everyone would not be possible.
“The finance was not there in order for us to cater to the whole unit … it was indicated within the feed-back we all received, that all within unit-2 would have participated if given the opportunity, however, we done our very best to accomodate all those we could,” Thompson said via JPay, the prison messaging site.
“The finance was not there in order for us to cater to the whole unit, however, we done our very best to accomodate all those we could.”
Though Thompson wanted to include his entire unit, the event had to be capped at 50 men. Because resources were limited, he tried to stick to inmates who lacked financial support from the outside, for whom a meal of more than the standard prison fare would be extra special. Most men in the facility make about $18 a month through labor they perform on behalf of the prison, Thompson said. When inmates do spend their scant earnings in the prison commissary, they have to prioritize medicine and hygiene products, not food or soda—which cost $1.75—from the vending machine.
“Most of the guys, all this time, never drank a cold pop.”
Cannon enlisted the two best cooks on the inside, Parker Sineora and William Welch (“like the grape”) to conjure the menu. Sineora came up with the recipe: fried rice on bagels. Thompson purchased some of the ingredients from the commissary. Meanwhile, outside, DeeDee Kirkwood, a California-based activist who has lobbied for Thompson’s clemency for years, footed the bill for the rest—enough sausage, rice, soup, chili, onions and peppers, cheese, bagels, chips, and soda pops to feed 50 people.
Thompson said that some of the men, who have been incarcerated for decades, haven’t had access to even the most basic treats. “Most of the guys, all this time, never drank a cold pop,” he said.
The cooks had only flimsy plastic knives, a single microwave, and empty popcorn bags.
“It’s kinda hard but once you get used to it, it’s easy,” Sineora said. “The microwave has 10 different settings as far as temperature goes.”
Sineora learned to cook from his grandmother and his mother. “Watching my grandmother and mother cook—they teach me how to cook, so I never have to worry about a woman!” he said, in a phone interview with The Counter. “I just take little things and do my own little spin on them, that’s all.” Sineora is serving a life sentence for homicide, a crime he was charged with committing at 18 (he contests his role in the death). “I was a stupid kid, it was my first and only mistake,” Sineora said. Before that, he had been an A and B student, slated for a college football scholarship.
“Mr. Thompson came up with the idea, I just put the meal together,” Sineora wrote in a later interview. “They came up with the idea and I said ‘Sure’ then I came up with the menu and everything.”
Fried rice on a bagel is an extravagance inspired by the limitations of incarceration. Sineora is used to having only a few ingredients at hand. Still, inventing a recipe can be like taking a trip outside the boundaries of your reality, with a final destination that shifts or recedes as you make progress. “I make up the recipes as I go along. I keep on tweaking until I like it and hope everyone likes it as well. We have very limited supplies,” he said. Once he landed on the ideal formula, though, Sineora’s recipe was meticulous and the steps were precise.
Welch also learned to cook from his mom, he said. “Everything—fried chicken, cake. Here, we gotta make do with what we got. And well, the hall food … it’s straight up garbage. Stuff that ain’t even edible.” Welch, who is also serving a life sentence, has been in prison for 32 years.
Thompson agrees that the meals inmates usually eat are barely recognizable as food. “It’s the same food as the dogs in the street get. I don’t know what kind of food it is … ‘Salisbury steak’… it’s like no Salisbury steak I’ve ever seen. Hot dogs? I’ve never eaten a hot dog with that kind of texture before.” Thompson said that the facility’s cooks are really just assorted prison staff assigned to the kitchen, who have no idea how to prepare food. The oatmeal and grits are always lumpy.
Because Sineora had to fry the rice and cook everything the day of the celebration, Cannon asked Welch to dice the sausage and vegetables the day before. “He agreed enthusiastically for this Noble cause,” wrote Cannon. The men struggled, he said, “going through the knives like butter.” He got a painful blister, but they got the task done. “I tore my hand up with the plastic, lord!” laughed Welch.
“With the plastic knives, it’s very hard,” Sineora agreed. The two men went through dozens of them while cutting up the onions, bell peppers, and meat.
Cannon sealed the sliced meat and vegetables and took them to his cell to keep in preparation for the celebration.
Sineora woke up at 4:15 a.m. on June 22, the day the men had selected to dine. He procured the empty popcorn bags he needed in order to “fry” the rice in the microwave, carefully rotating them “so everything cooks evenly,” he said. “Do not burn the rice!” his written cooking directions caution future testers. He added seasoning and butter. Meanwhile, Cannon worked on the sliced summer sausages, adding brown sugar to create a sweet crust around the edges. He prepared cup-container soup, and chili with refried beans, and mixed all the ingredients together in a large bag. Then, he heated 53 bagels, added cheese, spread the soup and chili mixture on top, and finished with a sprinkling of crushed Doritos. The process took 4 hours.
Cannon told the attendees to file in through the day room in small groups to pick up their meals. Thompson recalls no friction with the guards. “Everything was received in harmony,” he said. “We didn’t notice any hostility whatsoever, from staff or prisoners.”
Each attendee was served one celebration bagel, a bag of chips, and a soda. Then, they went back to their cells to eat alone. (Thompson said he suspects some shared the food with cell mates). But the men did find a way to do what Thompson had originally longed for, to share the meal together and express solidarity even while physically separated. After they returned their cells, each man sat in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And then they began to eat.
“We are not allowed to protest. However, ‘food’ has a way of bringing about three words, ‘Love, Peace, and Happiness.'”
“I was very moved by some of the comments that the guys were making about how special this occasion was, which was about commemorating the life of George Floyd, who through his sacrifice made the world stand up and say. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,” Cannon wrote, as part of a group of reflections that Thompson collected afterward. “I want everyone to know that we too feel the pain and anguish that so many Black men has endured. This was our way of paying tribute to George Floyd and all of the rest of those that gave their lives unnecessarily.”
“I would like to thank the three prisoners who played a major role in the success of this memory luncheon, I cannot express enough how touched I was witnessing the role these three prisoners played, which was done with PRIDE and DIGNITY,” Thompson wrote. He also had a message for Floyd’s young daughter: “To his little girl, your Daddy is going to Change the world.”
Thompson wrote in his own reflection about how he and his fellow inmates met the moment via the only means they had at their disposal: “We are not allowed to protest. However, “Food” has a way of bringing about three words, “Love, Peace, and Happiness. Well, we all feel we accomplished that on June 22, 2020 at 1:00pm.”
Derrick Jackson, another Muskegon inmate, pointed to the significance of sharing a meal. “It was important for us to break bread. Dining with other men created a form of camaraderie and community,” Jackson said, in an interview by phone. “If you think about the Last Supper, that’s Jesus charging the disciples with something to do. Almost like a meal before you take on a new responsibility,” he said. “It’s our duty now to be males who want to help others. Everywhere we go we should be able to make a change. And the food was very tasty.”
Keith, who asked that his last name not be used, agreed. “It was nice. They put a good effort forward, really impressed a lot of people. It was genuine, from the heart,” he said, by phone. “The food was really good, the way it was prepared. We had refreshments, too. I liked the whole meal. But the reason for the meal, George Floyd, made it even better. And the camaraderie with everyone. It hurt seeing somebody lose their life like that, calling their mother … I want to help. I want to be a part of the movement.”
“It wasn’t just African Americans—Mexicans, Caucasions, all the inmates. That’s what made the meal so significant. All races must come together in order to bring about change.”
“The guys loved the food. That was a luxury for a lot of them guys. A lot of guys don’t eat sandwiches like that,” Thompson said. “A lot of money and a lot of labor went into making three sandwiches of what they normally eat. The bagels were full of food.” The response, he said, was “nothing but smiles and many days of thank you’s.”
It wasn’t just the food. “That cold pop was a game changer,” Thompson said. “Because, for some of them, this was their first time drinking a pop in many years.”
The rare opportunity to enjoy a single cold, sweet drink stayed with Dave Bush, another attendee. “The meal was delicious. And the Mountain Dew….” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s been a while. Yeah. It’s been a while.”
While the meal was indelible for some, others seemed to feel that the opportunity to make a communal gesture was what mattered most.
“It wasn’t just African Americans—Mexicans, Caucasions, all the inmates,” said Eddie Hulum, one of the participants. “That’s what made the meal so significant. All races must come together in order to bring about change. That’s what was really significant about the celebration,” he said. “I really want to be a part of the movement that we’re seeing all around the world.”
Bush agreed. Surroundings don’t make a meal what it is. And food is just food without human connection. “My favorite part was just everybody being together as one.”
After the celebration ended, Thompson wanted the attendees to write down their reflections—about Floyd’s death, about the meal. But it wasn’t easy to get the inmates to share their feelings, especially the ones they harbored about police violence and the systematic racism and abuse they themselves had experienced. Some were afraid their words could be used against them. “I had to argue with a few of them, saying ‘Quit being so paranoid! I’m not trying to set you up!’”
In the end, most of them wrote. They included their full names and prison numbers.
“George Floyd unconsciously sacrificed his life to usher in a Black Lives Matter and social justice movement that has overtaken the world, and in this era to come change is imminent, just over the horizon.”
“It hurted to see a man with his arms behind his back beggin’ for his life. Telling the officer who took an oath to protect and serve he can’t breathe. When he [George Floyd] felt his life slippin away, he called out for the one he know got him, his mother,” wrote Rick Mason. “When I found out his mother was deceased, it really hit hard. We all call on Mom or Dad when we are in trouble or feel helpless.”
“It’s very important that we continue to bring awareness to the injustice that is being displayed by some law enforcement individuals,” wrote Aaron Rogers. “George Floyd to me is a modern day Emmett Till.”
“I take a great deal of pride in being part of this remembrance of George Floyd. As a white man I am honored to be involved in this,” wrote Danny Adair. “We need to learn from our history instead of repeating events such as George Floyd’s death.”
“George Floyd unconsciously sacrificed his life to usher in a Black Lives Matter and social justice movement that has overtaken the world, and in this era to come change is imminent, just over the horizon,” wrote Hullum. “Get on board, or be left behind!”
“When has murder has reason to become acceptable? When has skin color determined the value of your life?” wrote Juan Ramos.
“I felt the celebration was a good thing. The brother who put it together really laid it out, from his heart,” wrote Larry Walthall.
“It is my duty to be a part of the celebration of George Floyd’s life, because what happened to him woke up the people all around the world,” wrote Mark M. Posey.
“One of the things as a white man that I can do is pray for people on earth over something that should never have happened and having a meal to honor a man not for his skin color but as a brother in life,” wrote Kenneth McClellan.
“This celebration is a joy to have, males connect in Peace. Here George Floyd was recognized as a fellow man who identified with us all.”
A.L. Kelley said he doesn’t usually participate in political actions. But this was different. “I’ve always stayed away from the things that don’t benefit me directly,” he wrote. “But the death of George Floyd, and the coming together for that reason has given me a feeling inside that tells me real change is taking place.”
“This celebration for George Floyd was orchestrated by the incarcerated and forgotten to demonstrate that we are in solidarity with our brothers and sisters here and abroad in a silent protest against police brutality, racism, and the mistreatment of African people for more than four hundred years,” wrote Rick Wilson.
“This celebration is a joy to have, males connect in Peace. Here George Floyd was recognized as a fellow man who identified with us all,” wrote Derrick Jackson.
“I applaud my comrades for organizing this silent protest and for allowing me to share my perspective. I leave you with this quote: ‘To the privileged, equality feels like oppression,”’ wrote Demetrius D. Brasher. “America will never be great until the flag and Constitution reflects and/or represents every resident on this soil.”
Years from now, many hundreds of forkfuls from today, it won’t be the chili or the bagel or the crushed Dorito garnish that remain in the minds of these men—immediate and intense as the sense-memory may be today. It won’t even be that first sweet, cold sip from the once-in-a-life-sentence soda. Ingredients, flavors: those are the most ephemeral aspects of any meal, when you get right down to it.
Eating is the ultimate act of personhood. It is a declaration that you are here, now. This meal made a movement on the outside real for men who’ve spent much of their lives on the inside. As Thompson said, simply: “It made them feel human again.”
Our independent, deep, and unbiased reporting isn't possible without your support. Become a sustaining member today—for as little as $1 a month. Donate