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He rebuilt his life on recipes he learned in prison. Now his story is on the big screen

azcentral, July 10, 2022.

He rebuilt his life on recipes he learned in prison. Now his story is on the big screen

“When you watch TV shows about prison, it’s all about the fights,” said John Avila, owner of Prison Pies food stand. “They never talk about our food." 

Much like outside, food connects people inside to each other and to memories, he said. When he was first incarcerated in 2002 at age 21 for a DUI, Avila found himself missing the taste of home. When someone made him prison tamales using ingredients purchased at the commissary, he was shocked at the comfort it brought him. 

Incarcerated people have become vocal about the poor quality of the food in Arizona prisons over the last several years, according to an article in Prison Legal News. In March, more than 100 prisoners at the state prison in Florence held a hunger strike in protest of what they called inedible food and unsanitary conditions. In November 2020, incarcerated people who work in the kitchens at the Eyman, Lewis and Yuma state prisons claimed they were forced to serve expired meat to their fellow inmates, resulting in foodborne illnesses.

According to Impact Justice, as of 2018, Arizona’s food budget per prisoner was $3.81 per day. This included the utensils and non-incarcerated staff allocations. As a point of reference, the National School Lunch Program reimbursement rate is $3.66 per student per meal.

Starvation and poor-quality food send prisoners flocking to the commissary to purchase food with the money their family sends or with the small sums earned through work. 

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People who are incarcerated are not protected by labor laws or minimum wage. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas, prisoners are not paid at all. In Arizona, the prison wages are reported to be between 10 and 40 cents per hour for most jobs, according to an article by The Arizona Republic. Though, some jobs such as metal work and construction can start at $3 per hour.

"You earned 6 to 9 cents per hour for in-prison work and 20 to 37 cents if you left the yard," Avila said, adding that he earned 20 cents per hour while he was incarcerated from 2002 to 2004.

With such limited funds, prisoners often pool their resources so they can afford to buy items from the commissary for makeshift feasts on special occasions or to celebrate each other’s birthdays.

One of the most popular creations are prison tamales, made with packets or cans of meat added to moistened, crushed Doritos that are used in place of masa. Though it is nothing like his grandmother’s food, it reminded Avila of home.

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Food as a bridge to life on the outside

Since his release, Avila has embraced the stigma of his past incarceration and is serving prison-food inspired dishes as a way to share his experience. 

"I always liked to cook for others and decided to bring prison food outside," said Avila.

When he was first released he started making prison food for his family and "it blew their minds," he said, adding that every time he made it, people were pleasantly surprised and encouraged him to sell his food. In 2021, he did just that with his first Prison Pies pop up event during First Friday at Bud's Glass joint on Fifth Street and Garfield.

At their food stand, which now pops up at farmers markets around the Valley, Avila's partner Brittany Kidd points customers to a menu printed on a gray brick wall background. Kidd manages Prison Pies' marketing and website creation. Her company Boutique 5150 offers event planning and graphic design and runs a social club that advocates for mental health and community outreach programs.

The menu options are limited: prison tamale, prison nachos and chow hall hotdogs, available with options for extra meat, beans and cheese. To drink, he serves coke, sprite, water and Cadillac iced coffee that's sweetened with candy. 

Avila hands out plates with a Doritos wrapper cut open to show the rectangular tamale inside. He still uses Doritos instead of real corn to make the tamales and wraps them in a chip bag rather than banana leaves or corn husks, but the meat he cooks himself.

John learned from his grandmother. “She was the boss and had us kids in an assembly line to make tamales,” he said. 

It’s a surprisingly delicious bite, and a testament to how creative people can be when searching for comfort in dire conditions. It was a dish that gave Avila and others a brief escape from the four walls they were locked in and now it's a way to share their stories.

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Telling prisoners' stories to a wider audience 

One day, Avila was recording a TikTok video while his neighbor, a university student, was having a gathering.

“I had extra food, so I asked them if they were hungry and I gave them some,” he said.

The encounter inspired Bradley Smith, an ASU film student attending the party, to make a short film about Avila and his food cart. The film is shot on a 16mm film camera, which results in a beautifully grainy texture that gives the movie depth, with Avila as the narrator. 

“I’m an aspiring white ally looking at socially engaged art,” explained Smith, whose second love is food. He was fascinated by Avila and believed that Avila and his food could open the door for bigger conversations and make talking about prison life more approachable.

Smith also invited Avila to do a collaboration dinner where he taught attendees how to make prison tamales. 

The film, "Tamalero" premiered at the Palm Springs International ShortFest the last week of June 2022.

“We didn’t win,” said Avila. “But the film we lost to is nominated for an Academy Award, so we are not disappointed at all.”

The movie had other positive consequences, as it helped fast track a video project Avila had been working on called "War Stories." He planned to interview former prisoners and highlight their struggles in different episodes on Instagram.

“I noticed when I’d run into someone I was locked up with at a restaurant or grocery store and we’d talk about what went on in there, people would eavesdrop," Avila said. "They were very, very interested. So, I wanted to get the stories out there.”

He encouraged other formerly incarcerated people to talk about food, struggles, anything "except for politics and name dropping," when he announced the project on Instagram in early May 2022. 

A new way to feed curiosity and advocate for change

In June 2022, Avila also became involved with Arizona Barrio Stories, an organization dedicated to telling the stories of Mexicans and Mexican Americans by recording oral histories and stories and "War Stories" became a recurring segment and their Youtube channel in July 2022.

Though he still runs Prison Pies, Avila's ultimate goal now is to bring awareness to what prisoners go through.

“I have friends who are making a difference, ones who need justice—an incarcerated father whose son was murdered—and ones who are ill and need help,” said Avila.

One area he’s interested in is voting rights. Another goal is to keep the younger generation out of prisons all together. 

"Once you enter prison, you sign away your right to vote and bear arms, regardless of whether or not it was a criminal offense."

On the guest list for "War Stories" is muralist and tattoo artist, AJ Larson who was the lead artist for an Indigenous Sun Stone calendar mural at Barrios Unidos Park downtown. Life after incarceration is an important topic, as the struggles don't end with release.

“People need to understand that you don’t just lose your freedom, you lose everything ... you lose your career, you lose your relationships. A lot of people don’t want to talk to you anymore. You are so alone if you don’t have a family. You continue to be punished over and over and over."

For Avila, finding a way forward after his release started with the one thing that gave him comfort while inside. While incarcerated, food was a way to forget prison. Now, it's a way to remember. 

"If you don’t have a trade, you are lost," he said. "It’s like what do you wanna do when you grow up and you are 40 years old."

With Prison Pies and "War Stories", he's found his answer. 

Details: Find Arizona Barrio Stories on Facebook and search by John Avila for his segment. Follow @prisonpies on Instagram or check the website for the food cart's location. 

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Reach the reporter at Follow @banooshahr on Twitter.



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