By the time many Washingtonians roll out of bed to start preparing their holiday meal, inmates at the D.C. jail will already have eaten. The jail's kitchen staff cooks, ladles out and delivers meals to 1,700 inmates, who take turns eating on plastic, picnic-style tables. Thanksgiving dinner for the first group begins at 9:30 a.m.
The meals are precisely calibrated: Each inmate receives six ounces of boneless white turkey breast carved into three slices, four ounces of gravy, a quarter cup of cranberry sauce, a half cup each of freshly mashed potatoes, stuffing and green beans almondine and a 2.5-inch wedge of sweet potato pie.
The kitchen would not dare cook and serve whole turkeys, said Luke Sever, senior food service director. "If we variously served white meat and dark meat, there would be a fight," Sever said. "We must have consistency and uniformity."
Boneless breast, sliced on a deli-style rotating carver, is much easier to apportion fairly, so no one feels shortchanged. A manager measures a sample portion of the meat for workers to copy, and one portion of every 10 is weighed in a random spot check.
Sever ordered 525 pounds of the perfectly uniform bird breasts for Thanksgiving.
"It's not that I'm afraid there would be arguments if we served regular turkey--it's that there definitely and most assuredly would be arguments," Sever said.
Eating, after all, is one of the breaks in the endless tedium of a jail term in which a Monday is exactly like a Saturday, and a holiday is barely distinguishable from any other day.
But the Thanksgiving meal, even for those who'd prefer a leg or wing, will be a bright spot.
"Chicken days, turkey days and fish days are always special days," said Warden James C. Riddick Jr., who is soon to retire. "It's like caviar and escargot."
Thanksgiving, like chicken days and fish days, he added, "will be real control days." Special food, he explained, creates special tensions, because prisoners covet their neighbor's food.
To reduce the temptation for inmates working in the kitchen to stuff extra turkey and trimmings into their pockets, Sever plans to give them extra. He has programmed his computer to add an extra 5 percent to the ingredients to yield the exact amount of food needed.
"The staff will be rewarded with some extra food Thanksgiving day," said Sever. "It'll be a little thank-you." The goal, however, is to have no leftovers, not even enough for the Friday or Saturday turkey a la king traditional in so many American homes.
In Cellblock North 3, one of two for women, Corrections Officer L. Harrison said Thanksgiving will offer special challenges for staff and prisoners alike.
"Holidays get a little gloomy for the ladies," Harrison said. "We try to keep them in good spirits. Some of them get kind of depressed. With females, there is more withdrawing than acting out."
Harrison's extended family will put off the holiday meal until she gets off duty. Dinner will be served in the cellblock Harrison oversees at 10:15 a.m. on plastic trays with indentations for each part of the meal. By 11 a.m., the tables will be cleared and cleaned.
Harrison finishes up at 4 p.m. and will head home to a family dinner. She has 14 brothers and sisters, so even though half of them live in North Carolina, it will be a big, loving party.
Joan Davis, Inmate 275-690, wishes she could be with family. But she, for one, is not feeling sorry for herself.
"I don't look at this as being incarcerated. I look at it as being saved," she said. She's been in the D.C. jail since Aug. 31, on charges of prostitution. But her bigger problem is a nine-year addiction to crack cocaine. Davis hopes to start drug treatment soon and has been promised job training if the judge does not release her at her upcoming sentencing hearing. Davis, who dropped out of Taft Junior High in the eighth grade, hopes to "do hair or computers."
At age 30, she has seven children, who are spread among relatives and the foster care system. She's eager to see them and wishes she could at least talk to them on the holiday. But she isn't sure whether she wants to get out of jail now.
"It'd be good in a way if I were released. But then I wouldn't have drug rehab or job training. I wouldn't know which way to go."
So she waits. Thanksgiving day, she said, "will be like every other: boring." She said that the inmates sit and play cards and that she spends most of her time reading the Bible. Sunday is more special than any holiday: A Baptist church offers services in the morning, a Catholic service is held in the afternoon. Davis attends both.
But who knows, she thinks. Maybe the other inmates have something special in mind to mark the day. After all, they surprised her on her birthday.
"The girls gave me a cigarette and made me a card," Davis said. "I still have the card."
The woman in the bunk next to her, Frankie Brooks, 40, said her holiday treat will be calling home. Even local collect calls cost $2.70 for 10 minutes. The charges add up quickly, and many families stop accepting calls from inmates.
"I usually don't bother them. I know how expensive it is," Brooks said. "Also, there is nothing going on here, so there is usually nothing to say except 'How are you doing?' "
At least the holiday changes that.
"Thanksgiving gives you something to say," Brooks said. "I'll call, and I know they'll be there, and I'll wish them a happy Thanksgiving day."
CAPTION: Female inmates say they'll spend Thanksgiving much the same way they spend most days: reading, watching TV and playing cards.