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Phoenix Prison Pies Food Cart Inspires ASU Student’s Movie ‘Tamalero’

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

Just like on the outside, food connects the people inside to each other and to memories, he said. When he was First jailed in 2002 at age 21 for a DUI, Avila found himself missing a taste of home. When someone made him prison tamales with ingredients bought from the stewardship, he was shocked at the comfort it brought him.

Prisoners are speaking out about the poor quality of food in Arizona prisons in recent years, according to article in Prison legal news. In March, more than 100 inmates at Florence State Prison went on a hunger strike to protest what they said was inedible food and unsanitary conditions. In November 2020, inmates who work in the kitchens at Eyman, Lewis, and Yuma state prisons claimed they were forced to serve expired meat to their fellow inmates, resulting in illnesses from food origin. diseases.

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

Starvation and poor quality food send prisoners flock to the police station to buy food with the money that their families send or with the small sums earned by work.

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Televerde, an integrated sales and marketing technology organization, pays prisoners the state minimum wage.  But after deductions, the prisoners earn much less.

Prisoners are not protected by labor laws or minimum wages. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas, the prisoners are not paid at all. In Arizona, the prisoner salaries would be between 10 and 40 cents an hour for most jobs, according to an article in The Arizona Republic. However, some jobs such as metalwork and construction can start at $3 an hour.

“You made 6 to 9 cents an hour for prison work and 20 to 37 cents if you left court,” Avila said, adding that he earned 20 cents an hour while incarcerated from 2002 to 2004. .

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

One of the most popular creations are prison tamales, made with packets or boxes of meat added to moistened and mashed Doritos which are used in place of masa. Although it was nothing like her grandmother’s food, it reminded Avila of her home.

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Food as a bridge to life outside

Since his release, Avila has embraced the stigma of his past incarceration and serves dishes inspired by prison cuisine as a way to share his experience.

“I’ve always loved cooking for others and decided to bring the prison food outside,” Avila said.

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, that’s exactly what he did with his first Prison Pies pop-up event on First Friday at Bud’s Glass joint on Fifth Street and Garfield.

At their food stand, which now appears at farmers’ markets across the valley, Avila partner Brittany Kidd directs customers to a menu printed on a gray brick wall background. Kidd manages the marketing and creation of the Prison Pies website. His company Boutique 5150 offers event planning and graphic design and runs a social club that champions mental health and community outreach programs.

Menu options are limited: jail tamale, jail nachos and chow hall hotdogs, available with options for more meat, beans and cheese. For drinks, it serves coke, sprite, water, and Cadillac iced coffee sweetened with candy.

John Avila adds homemade beef to the prison tamale formula.

Avila distributes plates with a Doritos envelope opened to show the rectangular tamale inside. He still uses Doritos instead of real corn to make the tamales and wraps them in a bag of chips 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 on an assembly line to make tamales,” he said.

It’s a surprisingly delicious bite and a testament to how creative people can be when seeking comfort in harsh conditions. It was a dish it gave Avila and others a brief escape from the four walls they were locked in and is now 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 her neighbor, a college student, was hosting a rally.

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

The encounter inspired Bradley Smith, an ASU film student who was attending the party, to make a short film about Avila and her food cart. The film is shot on a 16mm camera, resulting in a beautifully grainy texture that lends depth to the film, with Avila as the narrator.

“I’m an aspiring white ally who looks at socially engaged art,” explained Smith, whose second love is food. He was fascinated by Avila and believed that Avila and her food could open the door to greater conversations and make discussions about prison life more accessible.

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

John Avila has broken his hands after finishing a birthday meal in prison.

The film, “Tamalero” was created in Palm Springs International ShortFest the last week of June 2022.

“We didn’t win,” Avila said. “But the movie we lost to is nominated for an Oscar, so we’re not disappointed at all.”

The film had other positive consequences, as it helped speed up a video the project Avila was working on was called “War Stories”. He planned to interview former prisoners and highlight their struggles in different episodes on Instagram.

“I noticed that when I met someone I was holed up with in a restaurant or grocery store and we talked about what was going on there, people would listen,” Avila said. “They were very, very interested. So I wanted the stories to get out there.

He encouraged other formerly incarcerated to talk about food, struggles, everything “except politics and name-dropping”, when he announced the project on instagram beginning of May 2022.

John Avila makes prison tamale at his stand.

A new way to nurture curiosity and advocate for change

In June 2022, Avila has also become involved in Arizona Neighborhood Storiesan organization dedicated to telling the stories of Mexicans and Mexican Americans by recording stories and oral histories and “War Stories” became a recurring segment and their Youtube channel in July 2022.

Although he still runs Prison Pies, Avila’s the ultimate goal now is to raise awareness of what prisoners are going through.

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

One area that interests him is the right to vote. Another goal is to keep the younger generation out of prisons.

“Once you enter prison, you give up your right to vote and bear arms, whether or not it is a criminal offense.”

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

“People have 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’re so lonely if you don’t have a family. You keep getting punished over and over and over again.”

For Avila, finding a way forward after his release began with the one thing that comforted him on the inside. During his incarceration, food was a way to forget the prison. Now that’s a way of remembering.

“If you don’t have a job, you’re lost,” he said. “It’s like what you want to be when you grow up and turn 40.”

With Prison Pies and “War Stories”, he found his answer.

Details: To find Arizona Neighborhood Stories About Facebook and research by John Avila for his segment. Follow @prisonpies on Instagram or visit the website for the location of the food cart.

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Contact the reporter at [email protected]. Follow @banooshahr on Twitter.