We haven’t had a microwave on our unit since Christmas. I mean, technically we do have one — it’s broken, unplugged, and facing the wall to prevent anyone from using it. I could tell it was slowing down a bit. It normally took 40 seconds to heat up my hot water for coffee, but in October it was taking 50 seconds, and by November it took a full minute. (My ex-wife always ordered her coffee at starbucks “extra-hot,” so I’m now trained to notice a few degrees’ difference in my instant coffee.) Anyway, the point is that I could tell the microwave was sick. I used to take the hot water out, after 40 seconds, and hold the mug up to my face. If I could almost feel a steam burn on my nose, I knew it was the ideal temperature. But in the fall I felt less and less steam, until on Christmas day, the thing didn’t work at all.
Everyone makes their “spreads” on holidays. A spread, loosely defined, is when several people pitch in and cook an inexpensive meal (usually in a rectangular tupperware box, which we call a “hobby craft box”). A typical spread might include: 8 ramens, a bag of beans, two chopped up summer sausages, some roast beef and gravy, squeeze cheese, a few jalapenos, some pickle, and some hot corn chips mixed in. You cook it all together, usually about 8 minutes in the microwave, then heat up tortillas, and eat prison burritos (hot sauce, barbecue sauce, and mayo on the side) with 5 or 6 of your friends (while 5 or 6 other people, whom you’ve never spoken to, circle your table like vultures hoping for a freebie). Once the microwave broke, spreads became impossible to cook properly.
We do have hot pots — they hold 5 cups of water. Our pots heat the water up, not quite to boiling (unless you alter the thermostat, but if you do that, the hot pot becomes contraband and will be taken if a guard notices the alteration). So most people just settle for hot (not extra hot) water. For the past few weeks, the hot pot has been the only way to cook anything. Our beef stew, for example, comes in a sealed pouch. We can drop the pouch into the hot water for 5 or 10 minutes, and it gets hot. Or we can throw rice or ramen noodles into the hot water, and they will cook. It’s not ideal, and in fact it’s quite a pain in the ass, but it’s better than nothing, unless you have a lot of microwave popcorn, in which case, you’re screwed.
On Christmas day, the rumor was that the sergeant said he’ll bring us a new one “tomorrow.” For the next few days, the rumor kept getting passed around: “hey I hear we’re getting a new microwave tomorrow.” There have now been 19 tomorrows, but still 0 new microwaves.
“Why should we give you a microwave? It’s you guys’s fault it’s broken. You’re always making candy,” said one staff member. (Making candy is where you mix creamer, water, and either fruity drink mix, or cocoa, and boil it into the microwave until it makes taffy. This is bad for the microwave.) But the thing is, nobody has made candy on this unit in almost a year. So the microwave’s demise wasn’t due to candy-making. “Sure, that’s what you guys always say,” was the response given to our candy denial. This prison is haunted. It’s a proven fact that ghosts roam the halls — ghosts from back when our prison was a mental institution. So I suppose it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that ghosts made candy in the middle of the night, when nobody was looking. Halloween wasn’t all that long ago, after all.
Here’s the real reason our microwave is broken: there are 88 inmates on our unit, and we all had to share one microwave. For a year, there is always someone using it. Making soup. Heating up water. Popping popcorn. The thing works full-time and never gets a break. At other prisons, units of our size would be allotted three microwaves, not one. At ICC, we had two microwaves for 59 people. And breaking news: we made candy at ICC constantly, and surprisingly, the microwaves persevered. We also made ghetto chips, which is supposedly bad for microwaves, too. (Ghetto chips are basically when you microwave ramen noodles, dry, with seasoning on them, and then eat them as a crunchy snack.)
Of course, when you’re in prison, you’re always going to encounter the conspiracy theorists. One such inmate, last night, told me he was convinced that Keefe (the company that sells us our commissary items and also provides the prison with free microwaves) had an overstock of hot pots, so they intentionally aren’t replacing our microwave so that more inmates will purchase hot pots for $20. And then the betting types — they have all placed their guesses — in the microwave pool — as to the date the new one will arrive. My guess was Friday, January 5th. Way off. Of course, gambling is against the rules, so we only play for pride. Leave it to inmates to be so freaking bored that they figure out ways to bet on microwave delivery dates. Pretty sad, right? Funny too, though.
There was the inmate who spent years in San Quentin. He told me, on the rec yard, that we are all a bunch of cry babies here, and that at a “real” prison, there are no microwaves. Perhaps we all just need to toughen up.
For now I’ll snack on mixed nuts, cheese and crackers, maria’s cookies, pickles, and tuna salad. Once I get released, I’ll be able to buy a microwave whenever I want. You know what? I might even buy two…just because I can.
Categories: Stephen Newman