The first thing to catch my eye about the letter was its penmanship: its tiny, immaculate letters with perfect margins and formal line spacing – obviously composed by the graduate of a rather stern grammar school.
The second was that it came from an 81-year-old prison inmate who, it turns out, is serving a life sentence for murdering a brigadier general in Army National Guard.
The third, capping off this strange episode, is that my inmate pen pal John Phelps was writing to complain that eggs have been removed from the breakfast menu at Mountain View Correctional Institution 102 times by his count without any substitution – a string of eggless days totaling nearly one-third of a year.
He asked if I might help.
“Eating junk food from the canteen to allay hunger and balance insulin is fatuous,” Phelps wrote, using a 25-cent word that here means silly or pointless.
We here at the News & Observer get a fair bit of correspondence from prisoners. Jail mail, we call it, and most of it goes straight into File 13. But I lingered over this letter from Phelps, who enclosed the letter he wrote to the state’s correctional officials, reminding them that “the breakfast meal is the most important meal of the day per national medical and nutritional standards.”
I don’t often get notes from octogenarian convicts, and letters that can cite the results of a 2013 Israeli study on metabolic health metrics are even more rare. So I decided, at Phelps’ request, to poke around a bit.
First there is the business of first-degree murder, to which he pleaded guilty in 2004. Nearing age 70 at the time, he offered an Alford plea, meaning he maintained his innocence despite taking credit for the crime.
The victim in his case was retired Gen. Lowell Wesley Ives of Wilson, who began his military career as a private at the end of World War II and spent a career in the National Guard, earning many decorations. Ives was known around Wilson for mentoring schoolchildren and visiting the elderly in rest homes. Found shot to death in his home in 2002, Ives made front page news and shocked the city.
Police arrested Phelps in Georgia a few days later. He had Ives’ bank card, driver’s license and a prized Colt 45 pistol the general received upon retirement. Newspaper accounts at the time described the two as acquaintances.
Given all of this, I don’t imagine many will feel sympathy for Phelps’ breakfast woes. Apologies to those behind bars, but I’m of a mind that breakfast in the Big House ought to taste fairly bad. Confinement for a felony is, after all, supposed to be uncomfortable.
Still, food that’s unsavory is one thing and food that’s nutritionally deficient is another. So I ran Phelps’ egg beef by the state Department of Public Safety, and I learned the following from Jackie Parker, chief of food and nutrition management:
Eggs in some form appear on the breakfast menu 17 days out of 35, not including the instances when boiled eggs are offered as an alternate lunch or dinner entree. On egg-free breakfast days, inmates are offered proteins in other forms, including turkey sausage, pork sausage, bologna, creamed ground beef, bacon and smoked sausage.
Phelps did not specify whether he is vegetarian, but if he is, that’s another can of corn. He did mention insulin, but if he is diabetic, that seems to present a health issue unrelated to eggs on the menu. In his letter, he asked that lunchtime potatoes be shifted to the breakfast menu, which in a prison kitchen, I’m guessing, is akin to asking for a doggy bag at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
For what it’s worth, Mr. Phelps, it seems like the state is trying to meet you halfway. I applaud your impeccable handwriting and your elegant prose, but if I were you, I’d throw a few more compliments to the chef. And don’t poach any eggs.