Ramen Trade

Anybody who’s ever seen a prison movie knows that cigarettes are the currency of choice for inmates, with coffin nails being furtively traded for information, goods, or special treatment.  Earlier this week the Guardian carried an article suggesting that coffin nails have been replaced — in some prisons, at least — by ramen noodles.

ramenAccording to a study by a doctoral candidate, the popularity of those square packets of ramen noodles that are ready to be tossed into boiling water with salty “flavor” packets is due to a combination of factors.  First, the quality of prison food apparently has declined significantly, because prison populations have increased and spending on prisons and supplies like food hasn’t kept pace.  Second, many of the inmates exercise constantly, and those ramen meals are high in calories and give them an energy boost.  One inmate actually wrote a book about the ramen culture in prison and provided some favorite inmate ramen “recipes” — like the truly disgusting sounding “Ramen Tamale,” made from Doritos, canned pork and beans, and ramen.  (I can only imagine the sodium content of that combination.)

Ramen noodles have been known to start fights in prisons, and allegedly inmates have been killed over their failure to repay ramen “debts.”  The Guardian reports that ramen noodles also helped resolved a race riot between African-American and Hispanic inmates in one prison who reached a peace accord and marked the resolution with a ramen feast.

As any college student knows, ramen is one of the cheapest foods you can buy.  It’s weird, and sad, to think that ramen packets that can be purchased at any grocery store for pennies have become the currency of choice for inmates, and that human beings are fighting and dying over a hardened brick of noodles that provides a single serving of soup.  The “ramen trade” should cause state governments to take a hard look at the quality, and amount, of food available in our prisons.

My One Visit To A Prison

The other day I drove past Orient, Ohio, the home of the Pickaway Correctional Institution, and I remembered my visit to that facility. It’s the only time I’ve ever been to a prison — and for me that one encounter was more than enough.

It was about 25 years ago, when we were defending a lawsuit brought by a number of siblings. We had to take their depositions, and one of them was in prison at the Orient facility. That meant the deposition would be at the prison. I drew that happy assignment.

I drove down to Orient, which is in a rural county south of Columbus. It’s a basic prison as prisons go, and not one of the maximum security facilities where the most violent and dangerous inmates are housed. Still, there was a lot of security — guard posts and barbed wire fences, going through multiple gates and doors with buzzers and bells and bright lights, showing identification at a series of locations — and I was keenly focused on scrupulously obeying every instruction I received. With the clanging shut of each gate and locked door that I passed through, I felt an oppressive physical and mental impact.

Finally I was inside, in a place where everyone but me, the court reporter, and the other lawyer wore a special outfit. The guards wore their uniforms, and the prisoners wore bright orange jumpsuits. The deposition was in a room off the common eating area, where some prisoners were lingering at tables. We followed a guard to the room, and as we walked through the common area I consciously avoided making eye contact with anyone.

We got to the room, and a guard brought in the deponent. He was a tall young guy, probably around 20, who was in prison for some kind of robbery offense. When the guard escorted him to the room he was handcuffed and wearing the ubiquitous jump suit. I was worried that he would be a glowering, threatening type, but he wasn’t. He answered my questions politely and carefully, without the aggressive attitude I had expected.

When the deposition was over, the guard walked him back to his cell, and the lawyers and court reporter cleared out of there as fast as we could. As I drove through the last gate at the last barbed wire fence, I breathed a sigh of relief. It felt wonderful to be free of that place. I suppose that’s the idea.