Are state budgets being balanced on prison inmates’ stomachs?

Are state budgets being balanced on prison inmates’ stomachs?

Ramen noodles, as they are generally known, have become de facto currency in jails populations.

Screen capture, scene from S2E3 of A&E's "60 Days In." (Courtesy A&E web site.)

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD., September 2, 2016 – In a recent article in the Washington Post, Amy B. Wang wrote about the current popularity of instant noodle soup inside American prisons. Ramen noodles, as they are generally known, have become de facto currency in jails populations. Formerly common currency, cigarettes are essentially gone now, even in jails that still allow smoking. Now inmates store packages of Ramen noodles, or soups as they call them, using them as something of a status item. Unfortunately, that is not the only reason they do it.

In the A&E reality series “60 Days In,” this entire culture is shown in detail. Prisoners are thrown into pods or blocks where there are not usually enough beds for inmates to sleep in. Incoming inmates have to find a place on the main/day room floor to roll out their thin sleeping pads. In some cases, bunk beds have been placed in the room allowing residents sleep in the open. This open space is known in some prisons as “the beach.”

According to sources, the representation of the prison environment in “60 Days In” is factual. No two prisons are alike, but it is clear that the prison where this series takes place may be a little above average, which in itself is disconcerting.

As the prison population changes, inmates graduate to one of the cells in their assigned pod. Typically, these cells usually have two bunk beds that sleep four, plus a bathroom. People in “the beach” have to ask permission to use one of the bathrooms in the cells. In rare cases, one of the bathrooms is dedicated to those currently residing in the beach.

When people are thrown into jail awaiting trial or some other judicial decision, they are left alone in these pods to fend for themselves. They are allowed to go outside on rare occasions or they are restricted to just a few hours for week of recreation in an indoor gym. Under these conditions it is common for prisoners to fight among themselves and commit crimes. In men’s prisons, violence is always present.

A Darwinist culture derives from these conditions. The strong and the cunning usually prey on the weak. The fact that there is no supervision of any kind most of the time transforms these prisons and pods into dens of predation, ruled over the dominant or most violent inmates, typically a pod “boss” who runs the place by default. This fact is well known to corrections officers, and it is accepted by them as one way to keep the population relatively tranquil and in check.

While this is already the portrait of grim prison reality, it’s also where those Ramen noodles enter the picture.

In the past, most prisons provided three hot meals a day. During the last few decades, however, that situation has changed for the worse. Prisoners now generally get two hot meals and a sandwich or other light meal in the middle of the day. It is common for the inmates to get a single hot dog for lunch along with a small serving of chips.

In some Texas prisons, inmates are only given two meals a day, and those meals are usually heavy on carbohydrates and low on protein and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables are non-existent.

State budgets are being balanced today at least in part on the stomachs of the prison population. In 2010, states spent 5.6 percent less on corrections facilities than the year before, even though the prison population is increasing. It is obvious that a healthy portion of the savings sought by state departments of correction are coming at the expense of the amount and type of food provided to inmates.

To no one’s surprise, inmates in our jails are hungry, to the point where it’s unclear whether they are getting sufficient food to remain healthy.

This is where Ramen noodles come in. To complement their dietary needs. inmates buy these noodles. They get them from the commissary, an internal store that’s part of most large prison facilities. Many commisaries have an automated system where inmates use their individual PIN codes to access items via a touch screen monitor. Aware that inmates are often hungry, prison management makes food items, like Ramen noodles, readily available.

Of course, these systems are in the business of revenue enhancement. A case of Ramen costing less than $5.00 on the outside costs inmates up to $13.00 at the commissary. Keeping the inmates hungry induces them to buy junk food from the facility at substantial profits.

It gets worse. To communicate with family and friends and to request money to spend in the commissary, inmates must make phone calls to relatives or friends to make such arrangements. This service is usually run by a private company that charges rates above what is customary on the outside–yet another operation profiting on the hunger pangs of prisoners.

Some have labeled U.S. prisons “21st Century Slavery,” a situation that doesn’t cease even after an inmate has been discharged from prison after serving sentence. Many states deny civil rights to convicted felons even after they fulfill their time in jail.

It was once said that “Civilizations are judged on how they treat their less fortunate.” Our prison system needs to be more rigorously scrutinized with an aim of providing more humane and civilized treatment to those who find themselves ensnared in the labyrinth of our judicial system.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, has never been in jail, but knows several people that have. He can be found in Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).

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