The call to eat echoes through the metal stairway where inmates are already amassed at the exit. I squeeze out the narrow doorway and rush to the chow hall — double-time — to avoid being at the back of the line. Two lines become one as we approach the dining hall and move toward the serving counters.

I grab a tray. So does the black guy beside me. I nod and let him place his tray on the counter before me. I’m an older, white, suburban-first time in prison-type guy, so I’ve learned that here in federal prison, we let the “real convicts” cut the line.

As we slide trays down the serving rail, the first server lays a tiny plastic fork and spoon wrapped in a tissue-thin napkin on his tray, then the same on mine. Sliding along the rail, the next server, a large black man, heaps a double serving of hamburger meat on his tray, followed by a nod and a wink. When I approach the same server he looks away and slaps a much smaller single serving of hamburger on my tray.

I’ve resigned myself to this double-standard in the chow hall.

The next server, an older white guy, serves my friend a rather meager half ladle of veggies. But as I slide my tray forward, I see him fill his large size ladle with a huge portion of veggies and drops them in my tray with a smile and a wink.

As we both make our way out of the serving area, we stop, shrug our shoulders and exchange our trays. You see K-Dog is a vegetarian and I love meat. I know this because we are friends.

Rather than buck the system, we do this exchange almost every day. Then we proceed to our separate seating areas; he to the black inmates tables and me to the whites.

Welcome to Federal Prison, where contradictions run rampant.

— Steve L.

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