Sweet Potatoes Magee: Thanksgiving in Prison with a Service Dog in Training

A writer gives thanks for the community that has helped him endure incarceration.
Nov 20, 2023

Magee says it’s not Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes, and I agree. Magee (pronounced MAH-ghee) is an adorable 11-month-old black lab from a service dog training program that I’ve been raising and working with since January.

But sweet potatoes, which are one of Magee’s favorite special training treats, won’t be on my menu, as prisons throughout New York State no longer allow canned food. This will be my 24th Thanksgiving behind bars.

I’ve written about the holiday before. Akin to the 100 bad poems everyone has in them, these previous recountings have been in the breathless manner of hyper-detailed food porn, and then later, as a self-satisfied treatise on familial roles played by local stand-ins. Now, though, I write through the lens of gratitude. But gratitude, as Red said of “rehabilitation” to his parole board in The Shawshank Redemption, is just another bullshit word deployed by meme generators, so let me show you what I mean.

The holiday is celebrated in prison—at least the prisons I’ve been in: Attica, Great Meadow, Auburn, and now Fishkill—just as it is in the free world. But not quite. For some, it’s just another day, either by choice or because of a lack of resources. For most, there’s food, a day off work, and watching football. I’d even feel a fleeting air of easiness take hold of the darker corners of Attica, where I spent my twenties. But there is a palpable sense of straining to recreate, with all the trappings, one’s pre-prison Thanksgiving.

Of late, my thoughts have gone retrospective. You see, I go before the parole board in July 2024, and I’m hoping this will be my last Thanksgiving in prison (long odds, but one can hope). So, I, naturally, look to Thanksgivings past. If I can be permitted a David Foster Wallace moment of “this is water,” it is precisely in places like an American prison where one learns gratitude.

In Attica’s maintenance department, we enjoyed a workplace potluck, with civilian bosses providing venison and cookies from home. My boy Ant got a bowl of food from his friend of a friend on the storehouse dock and shared it with me, even steven. He gave me literally half his decadent bowl of food. Later, in Attica’s honor block, where we had access to electric skillets and refrigerators, I cooked with Jason, Whit, and Doc, and we had a proper turkey (courtesy of Doc’s credit card) with side dishes galore: clams casino (my aunt’s recipe), candied yams, and stuffing made from scratch. In Great Meadow, I enjoyed a south-of-the-border Thanksgiving with a crew of Mexican and Ecuadoran men; we formed an assembly line for black bean burgers to accompany the platanos with chicken and lime. In Auburn, Paris made a West Indian-inspired stuffing with cornbread and curry that was so good I ate until discomfort, and Dan baked me a personal pecan pie from scratch. These men became family. To paraphrase Hemingway, you meet good people in the trenches. Not to mention the belated Thanksgivings spent with my wife during overnight visits, with extravagant food consumed in human portions. As for the state-sponsored fare, the mess hall has cut costs each year, and now the holiday menu is processed turkey loaf, a small (medication window-sized) cup of cranberry sauce, salty stuffing, and a dinner roll.

Cartoons depicting Magee by Roberts.

My loveliest Thanksgiving in prison was in Fishkill in 2019. I had been in the puppy program for several months, and our housing unit, with red tile floors and wooden doors to our rooms (not cells anymore), recalled the free world. I included all 21 people—an exercise in herding cats that I won’t try again, as it was such a hassle to use kid gloves on guys who didn’t want to break bread with specific others. But the cooking, with four people in a tiny kitchen, was exhilarating. I made garlic knots (Dan’s recipe, a crowd favorite), and there were candied yams, sweet potato pies, turkey breast, pasta salad, and extravagant amounts of fish rice. Dog crates covered with sheets made a banquet table. Our dogs, unstuffing marrow bones, were characteristically well-mannered around food, a training exercise in itself.

Organizing the event was, I now see, an outward expression of gratitude for these amazing dogs. I have always been a dog person. (Full disclosure: at the moment, Magee is snoring—little girl, big snore—from her nest of blankets underneath my bed; her leg bounces periodically and her tail just wagged. A tableau of cuteness.) I am unendingly grateful for Magee’s presence in my life; for the faith placed in me by the instructors who assigned her to me; for the family, friends, and mentors who helped me become someone capable of doing the hard work of raising and training dogs; and for the guys like Joe, who, about every other day, take a long look at Magee and ask if I know how lucky I am.

Gratitude has become my MO, and not just on Thanksgiving. For four years, these labs have taught me their gratitude, which occurs in the moment, like when their eyes widen before you hand them a special treat: “For me?”

As to how I’ll be spending the holiday this year, my Jamaican friend, Grimm, can do without the Hallmark schmaltz, but we’ll enjoy some good eats and a day of rest. That morning, I can sleep in and snuggle Magee, whose lustrous black coat is highlighted against a peach sleeping towel as I rub her tummy and scratch her ears as dark as felt. She smells like peanut butter cups. Then we’ll play fetch in a quiet, tree-filled yard, Magee skidding across colorful leaves. For dinner, she’ll enjoy the stuffed Kong toy I’ll prepare for her, with sweet potato treats, dehydrated beef liver, and other goodies.

This will be our last Thanksgiving together. Instructors will decide Magee’s career path by summer, so next year will be her first Thanksgiving out of prison and, if I’m granted release, my first in 25 years. I’ll go forward with a gratitude learned over decades and honed by Magee, my latest teacher.

Adam Roberts, a founding member of the Attica Writers' Workshop, is a peer counselor, educator, and working visual artist. He has been in prison since 1999, and currently resides in Fishkill, New York, where he trains service dogs. You can read an excerpt of his forthcoming memoir, The Squeeze Machine, at adamrobertswrites.medium.com. He can be found on Instagram at @Adam_drawseverything.

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