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  • Instant ramen: It's warm, flavorful, quick, cheap, and filling.

  • It's the chosen favorite among college kids and inmates across America.

  • Check usage reports from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, for example, and you'll see that ramen was the number one sold item at prison commissaries.

  • Ramen has become like "cash" among American prisoners.

  • Because behind bars, it can buy you anything.

  • Anything; anything that's got any value, from clothes, drugs, uh, a favor.

  • "Hey, I like the way your penmanship is, can you write this letter for me?", "Can you draw this for me?"⏤you know, anything.

  • It's... it's literally gold.

  • This is Gustavo "Goose" Alvarez.

  • After 13 years in and out of prison, he literally wrote the book on "Prison Ramen".

  • Ramen is the best and easiest currency because everybody uses it.

  • Everythat's everybody's staple to cook; you gotta have ramen.

  • Because prisoners can't possess cash, they use objects to trade for other goods and services.

  • And anything that replaces cash has to be durable, portable, divisible into standardized units, and highly valued.

  • Ramen fits the bill because, unlike other traded objects like stamps, which are expensive, and tobacco, which is banned in most prisons, ramen is cheap and easy to get a hold of.

  • In the commissary, a single pack of ramen runs about 59 cents on average.

  • But once it's out of the official commissary, ramen's value is determined by an informal prison economy.

  • They barter with it, they become jailhouse stores, so to speak, like, guys would purchase all the ramen, kind of like that scene in "Orange Is The New Black".

  • She took over the market.

  • Jesus, who bought all the ramens?

  • Guys fill up their shelves with this and they have their own store and then they put their price on it.

  • Your ramen could sell for 2 to 3 dollars, believe it or not.

  • A 2016 study found that while a sweatshirt cost 10 dollars and 81 cents at the commissary at Sunbelt State Penitentiary, an inmate could sell that sweatshirt for 2 packs of ramen, increasing the value of ramen by 916 percent.

  • In fact, food items are the overwhelming majority of what people buy.

  • An analysis of annual commissary sales in three states shows that 75 percent of spending was entirely on food and beverages.

  • Inmates aren't just using ramen as cash; they're also eating it.

  • Creative cooking in prison is a necessity.

  • When asked if prison meals were enough to live off of, Alvarez said,

  • No, I... I think you would starve. Literally.

  • I lost, like, ten pounds, you know, because they give you a... a meal that's maybe for a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old.

  • But it wasn't up to par, it wasn't your "4 food groups"⏤ it was none of that.

  • So, ramen can supplement when the food provided isn't enough.

  • With 2.3 million people in US prisons and pressure to cut costs, food is one area where federal and state governments are trying to save money.

  • Some inmates are now being fed for as little as a dollar, 77 cents a meal.

  • In one instance, the Marshall Project reported that one prison that had whittled down costs to as low as 56 cents a meal.

  • But keeping food costs low doesn't come without consequences.

  • Aramark, a private food vendor to over 600 correctional facilities, has been cited for giving inmates tainted food and serving fewer and smaller meals.

  • New information tonight about ongoing problems with maggots found in Ohio prison kitchens.

  • Issues like this with Aramark and other private food vendors have prompted civil lawsuits and protests in response to the state of food.

  • Turns out, food isn't just about nutrition; it's also about security.

  • Despite everything, ramen has become a way inmates keep a sense of control while in the system.

  • We would actually make a humongous spread.

  • And these soups would be the equalizer for all of us to sit down and have a meal, you know, and... and not stress on what's happening on the prison yard.

  • Trade and bartering in prison isn't new, but until there are systemic changes in its food system, ramen will likely stay at the top of the prison trade economy.

  • Simply because food is a basic need.

  • And ramen is a basic solution.

Instant ramen: It's warm, flavorful, quick, cheap, and filling.

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B1 US Vox ramen prison cash meal sweatshirt

Why ramen is so valuable in prison

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    April Lu posted on 2022/06/01
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