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The high crime of being served chicken, not fish in state prison
Dennis Wyatt

“Chicken,” the firm voice with just a tinge of indignation uttered, “we were served chicken and that should not have happened. They said they ran out of fish.”

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the fact we have a rather robust justice system model that allows the aggrieved to make a case in Small Claims Court for justice as long as they are not seeking a claim for more than $2,500, I found myself recently in a courtroom in the San Joaquin County courthouse in Stockton listening to a voice.

The voice had nothing to do with my case nor was it coming from a person in the courtroom.

It was coming from a California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation lifer on a speaker phone answering a question posed by the judge.

On May 4 the state of California allegedly committed the high crime of serving the aggrieved – who was entitled to meals in adherence to his religious beliefs – chicken instead of fish.

He was seeking $1,000 for the indignity.

This was not his first rodeo with being served the wrong entree. Months prior the staff at Deuel Vocation Institute in Tracy messed up his religious meal diet. After filing a grievance, the Department of Corrections admitted they had erred. This time around based on testimony by both the inmate and the Department of Corrections official in the court, he did not go through the grievance process before filing a claim for $1,000. The state contended this time around what was alleged to have happened didn’t happen.

“I should not have been served chicken,” the voice emphasized.

 My mind went back to a fleeting encounter I had recently during a trip to the courthouse for jury duty. Seven floors below along Weber Street, as I went in search of a store to buy a Snapple during lunch break from jury selection, I had a fleeting encounter with a homeless person. OK, there was more than just “one” homeless person on the street but this one stood out. He was young, perhaps still in his late teens, with a deer-in-the-headlight look in his eyes as he sat on the steps of the old courthouse. Realizing you can’t get a clear read from a fleeting glance, he didn’t look like he was on drugs, but who knows. What he did look was scared.

The CDC representative brought my mind back to the 7th floor. He was telling the judge that the plaintiff did not suffer any financial losses as he was getting three free meals a day.

It was then that the full lunacy of the situation hit me.

The plaintiff obviously had to be convicted of some rather heavy duty crime to get a life sentence, especially in California. He had – as some taken back by the demands of prisoners over the years would say – “three hots and a cot.”

The state was obviously spending money to defend itself for what, according to the inmate, was for the second meal flub regarding a religious meal entree out of 867 meals he had been served on the dime of the taxpayers since the start of 2018. Such an affront was worth $1,000 in the eyes of the plaintiff for one in every 433 meals being partially messed up. I get my requests for either veggie patty substitutes, no meat in an item or sauce, or no onions ignored I assume by mistake probably one in every 30 times I dine out and I’m paying for my meals. Based on the plaintiff’s rationale, I’m entitled to a boatload of money.

This, of course, wouldn’t be an issue nor would the state via the court and the CDC be spending manpower costs easily in excess of $1,000 on hearing the small claims case about the affront made to an inmate’s religious values had that said inmate not committed a heinous crime that society found itself justified in locking him away for life.

No one is arguing that you lose all rights to human dignity when you are incarcerated. But you can’t help but wonder how absurd things are if we have built a system where tons of resources are committed to addressing the grievances and suffered slight of an felon behind bars over being served chicken instead of fish and because of that commitment of limited tax dollars we lack the means to save lives from slipping into a cesspool.

Somewhere in Stockton as I sat in the courthouse I assume that young homeless man I encountered last week was not focused on slights – perceived and otherwise – and was more than likely worried about basic survival.

He’s just as likely at his age to be the victim of his own making whether it is substance abuse or refusing to follow the rules as he is by circumstance as defined by loss of job, mental issues or things that may be the result of bad decisions but not necessarily bad behavior.

And while no one should expect a free ride, our collective resources as a government are directed at the felon behind bars. Not only is his food and shelter provided along with all needed healthcare and such but if he thinks he’s being mistreated or disrespected the system allows him to not just make a grievance but to also try and extract monetary damages for perceived slights.

Meanwhile out on the streets it’s a different world.

Are we too chicken to change a system that has become more than a little fishy?

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.