Ramen noodles' important link to the economy inside prison walls

Ramen noodles' important link to the economy inside prison walls

CultureAugust 17, 2016 By Brian Frederick

Take a look outside whatever window you can find. What is it that you see? Is it the world? Freedom? A definitive way of existence that you’d be scared shitless over if it were to change drastically without expressed permission?

Now think about how safe you are if you stepped outside. Most of us feel confident we can go about our daily interactions, wandering about the city without the possibility of being picked up by law enforcement and tossed in a cramped room. But we’re all wrong. We’re all prey to the system.

So, how is it you'd survive being thrown behind bars?

Recently, Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona School of Sociology, presented findings via the American Sociological Association about a previously unknown system of currency inmates use to do business behind bars: Ramen noodles.

The dried block consisting of mostly fat, sodium, and not much else, boasts close to 200 calories per serving and is generally frowned upon as general sustenance outside of concrete barriers — save for starving college students and dudes who haven’t moved out of mom and dad’s house yet.

‘On the ins,’ however, they’re worth upwards of 100 times what we pay for them in local grocery stores. The rate exchange has been ongoing for some time, but only recently came to light through the book Prison Ramen: Recipes And Stories From Behind Bars, co-written by Gustavo "Goose" Alvarez, an ex-con.

The book served as the impetus for Gibson-Light’s research. He interviewed close to 60 inmates and prison staffers about the salty meal and why it had such an impact on prison life. He concluded that the meal was so valuable through inmate to inmate purchases, gambling, and bartering, because the food quality over the past few years has gotten worse.

But that’s not telling the whole story. As an author and researcher, he was only able to see one perspective. As an inmate, you see a completely different one.

In 2002, I spent close to 4 months in the Arapahoe Country Detention Facility in Centennial, CO. As far as lockups go, it was pretty decent. Unlike other jails around the state — where you’re locked up for 23 hours out of the day with one hour shower/rec time — this place was more or less ‘open’ and relaxed. As open and relaxed as it could be, I suppose ...

Think of a standard elementary school gym, flanked by two levels of cells that house 4 (usually 5 or 6 because of overcrowding) inmates to each. No carpet, dingy walls, one TV, concrete and stainless steel everything — and the recycled air smelling like farts every hour of the day. Brown Palace it isn’t, more like a Motel 3.

I learned very quickly what I had to do to pass time (hardly “survive,” because this was a place for short-timers, not hardened criminals with nothing to lose). Hustling and gambling became a pastime of mine within the first few days, something I rarely do ‘on the outs.’ The new ventures were usually facilitated through games of Spades or Bones, yet always kept on the down low between jump-suited peers.

Larger games would run upwards of 10 Ramen soups to be won. Once, I watched a guy younger than me lose 20 soups in one hand of blackjack. You’d have thought the towers were falling down on CNN listening to the inmates cackle and watch in amazement. He was threatened immediately to pay up or there were problems yet to happen. He did. The winner became the house’s most popular inmate damn near instantly.

He probably had little to worry about; the guy he lost to was a tool that nobody liked. He had 4 pairs of his shower shoes stolen by the same guy and did nothing about it. In these kinds of jails meant mostly for non-violent drunks, most everyone talks a sour game. Nobody ever does anything about it.

But when it came to soups, nobody ever fucked around.

Bought through the commissary (jail store), Ramen blocks went for about $1.80. That is, an 1,800 percent markup from your local King Soopers or Walmart. Still not an absolute ball-breaker for most, but worth enough that the homeless being cycled through looked at the orange or red blocks (chicken or beef, that’s all you had to choose from) like it was Christmas morning. For some, these things were life.

Really, it’s because Ramen noodle packages are so versatile. In a place where food seasonings aren’t used, they had real flavor. You could use Ramen’s for a snack, to supplement the always horrendous dinners, or create new delicacies in your off-time.

The jailhouse burrito is still one of my favorite things to talk about when I explain what it’s like to people who have never been. Because, yeah, jail sucks. It was about the only thing I had to be excited for.

As far as I know, the soup trade has been going on for close to two decades, and from what I saw, didn’t really have much to do with food quality as Gibson-Light suggests. It’s more that it’s a thing inmates are able to own. One of the few things that has value. You have a bucket of belongings to your name, colorful soups are just as good as anything else to use as currency.

Money is, after all, only paper. It isn’t worth anything. Most bills are torn, dirty or carrying around the stench of a stranger’s ass sweat. There’s nothing valuable about the physical incarnation of it. But what makes cash superior to a brown paper bag in the world is the collective belief behind it. Humans give it value through imagination, through social consciousness.

Which is why cheap, crispy soups are worth so much behind bars. Because something has to be. It could have been coconut butter or chap stick for all inmates care — it wouldn’t have mattered. Soups just became the defacto brand of currency because those inside were, and are, willing to fight for them. To kill for them.

As humans, we assign value subjectively. A prisoner's world in there isn’t so different from yours out here. We all survive how we can.