HRDC director quoted about making birthday cakes in prison
In prisons across South Carolina, it’s not a birthday without cake made by a fellow inmate
Students of American sitcoms know there’s only one thing to do when they’re inconveniently put behind bars. The obvious strategy is to enlist a friend to bake a saw into a cake.
There’s scant historical evidence of anyone ever escaping prison by way of doctored baked goods. Newspapers in the early 1900s ran accounts of hapless criminals’ sweethearts concealing revolvers in chocolate cakes and files in mince pies, but those lightly sourced scenes are probably the era’s equivalent of what TVTropes.org calls the “Jail Bake,” in which the joke involves a contraband cake with a saw sticking out, or a dunderhead showing more interest in a cake than the implement concealed within it.
In short, this smuggled-in cake business is mostly a myth. But it’s verifiably true that workers at one South Carolina prison recently asked for permission to tote out cakes created by an incarcerated woman who’s blossomed as a baker since starting her sentence.
“I had officers wanting to buy my cakes from me,” says Florence, who’s currently imprisoned at Leath Correctional Institution near Greenwood. (It’s S.C. Department of Corrections’ policy to not release the full names of people made available for interviews.) “They asked (the director) if they could bring me supplies. She contemplated a bit, and she said, ‘I don’t think so. But those cakes look like they came out of Publix.’”
Florence is esteemed throughout the state’s prison system for her cake-making skills. Workers and women transferred to Leath will sometimes tell her they’ve heard stories about her pretty, customized cakes, such as a pink-diapered teddy bear with jelly bean eyes and a peppermint in its paw.
Yet, at just about every correctional facility across the country, there’s at least one cake specialist whose hustle is providing the centerpiece for fellow inmates’ birthdays and improvised celebrations. Birthday cakes have also flourished outside of the informal prison economy, with friends banding together to concoct passable sweets in their cells.
Chris was just one month removed from a five-year stay in a Kentucky prison when he landed in the county jail, his mother recalls.
“He was on suicide watch and in a green jumpsuit,” she says. “He had looked forward for so long to having a birthday party with his family, but he had failed again. So the other inmates got together and bought some HoneyBuns and other treats and mushed them together to make him a cake. He said it was one of the most meaningful moments of his life.”
When the men presented the cake, they sang “Happy Birthday.” When Chris got back to his pod, he cried.
Prisoners have long gotten around the awfulness of institutional food by crafting palatable snacks from commissary purchases and ingredients lifted from the mess hall. But the inventions that have gotten the most play in the mainstream press are those that square with the public perception of convicted criminals as tough, greedy and mean. The non-incarcerated population tends to hear about the overstuffed burritos, spicy ramen and chili casserole.
But current and former prisoners interviewed for this story say none of those items are as significant as birthday cake.
“I’m not remembering having access to icing,” says a South Carolinian who served a sentence in a federal penitentiary. He asked that his name not be used because he’s rebuilding his professional life. “No candles. But during my stay, we made it a point within our group to celebrate people’s birthdays.”
When he threw parties for friends, he “would usually buy a few cheesecakes,” priced at $15 a pop. (Cash isn’t permitted in prison, so transactions are conducted in postage stamps or foil packets of mackerel. At this particular institution, the exchange rate was one U.S. dollar to one mackerel packet.) But for his last birthday party before his release, a buddy made him a “phenomenal” strawberry kiwi cheesecake.
“Making cake takes some time and effort and stuff, but it definitely beats anything the prison is serving up,” says Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News. Prior to his 2003 release, Wright was imprisoned for 17 years in Washington state.
“The other thing is it’s kind of like a group project,” Wright continues. “It would be like me and two other guys. Someone’s doing the crust, someone’s doing the filling. ... It doesn’t sound that hard, but you’re doing this with plastic spoons. It’s not like you have a state-of-the-art chefs’ kitchen.”
Still, Wright spent time developing his cheesecake recipe because food was a rare source of pleasure behind prison walls.
“I don’t use drugs,” he says. “For the probably 80 percent (of prisoners) who use drugs, everything revolves around getting high. They’re going to spend their social and political capital on heroin or cocaine or pot. If you’re not doing drugs, it comes down to what do you want?”
Once Wright perfected his recipe, he wanted graham crackers and cream cheese and strawberry Kool-Aid powder. A jailhouse lawyer, he especially liked to buy them once the money won in a case against the state showed up in his account. “It tastes really good when the government’s paying for it,” he says.
Recipe for celebration
Wright concedes there isn’t one right recipe for prison cheesecake. “Probably if you ask 50 people, everyone’s got their special recipe,” he says. He’s pretty sure his recipe comes close to correct.
First, Wright would crush the graham crackers. “It’s kind of a pain in the butt to smush them all and get them evenly sized, so the other crust I do is Fig Newtons, but they kind of stick together.”
Next, he’d press the crust into a Tupperware dish, while microwaving the cream cheese with the Kool-Aid until it boiled. “We’d get it bubbling in around six to 10 minutes.” Then he’d pour the filling into the graham cracker shell, topping it with sliced bananas swiped from breakfast or syrupy peach wedges fished out of a can.
Finally, another layer of cream cheese, another layer of fruit, another layer of cream cheese and a splash of boiled cherry marmalade or strawberry jam. “That seals it,” he says. “Sometimes, we’d be able to get kiwis for garnish, just strategically placed so it looks good.”
To chill the cake, Wright sunk the covered dish into an ice-filled wastebasket for four hours. “You do that in the afternoon, and then you eat burritos,” he says. “There’s nothing like a good cheesecake after a wonderful meal of burritos. The two go hand in hand.”
For her popular cakes, Florence needs a box of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls and 3-4 packs of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. Duplex sandwich cookies work in a pinch, as do peanut butter cookies, but Florence prefers the richness that comes from chocolate chips. “It don’t make no humongous cake, but if you want it bigger, I can make it bigger,” she says. “The only thing is it requires more Swiss Rolls.”
Florence charges $7 for a cake, and her client has to buy the ingredients.
“Some people say why they have to supply the stuff,” Florence says. “The difference is you’re not going to get this anywhere else: $7 is for my labor.”
A future takes shape
Although Florence has always loved to cook, she didn’t cook for her first five years in prison because she’d never cooked anything in a microwave. But when a friend serving a life sentence had a birthday coming up, Florence wanted “to do something different that you cannot get in an institution.” That was the first time that Florence dissolved broken-up cookies in milk and microwaved them with Swiss Rolls to approximate brownie dough.
“Then you can mold it,” she explains. “I got a cardboard box and wrapped it with a brand-new trash can liner and molded it out.”
Since then, “I’ve done so many types of characters. I’ve had people come up and say, ‘Hey, I need Betty Boop.’ I’ve done Chuck Taylors. I’ve done a country in Africa. I’ve done a lava cake — you know how Pizza Hut had them? — and birds flying through the air with keys in their mouths. I’ve made so many cakes I could probably fill up a whole sheet of paper.”
Using non-dairy creamer and powdered lemonade, Florence also devised a pie, which she can dye by picking out same-colored Skittles, allowing her to put both yellow and blue SpongeBobs on her dessert list.
Other women warned Florence not to share her cake secrets with anyone else, but she was so confident in her artistry that she trained an aspiring prison baker. Her business never took off.
“Not to toot my own horn, but it wasn’t as good as mine,” she says of her mentee’s best birthday cake. “I’m very proud of myself, because I didn’t know I had these skills, so I’m glad I came to prison.”
She’ll also be glad to leave. She’d like to someday take a cake decorating class. And then she’d like to sell her cakes from a food truck, ideally outfitted with an oven, sharp knives and bags of peanuts she doesn’t have to liberate individually from Snickers bars.