CHAPTER TEN, LETTER FROM THE COUNTY JAIL #4,
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Dear Baby Sis,
So, back to your questions about the commissary. Yes, given my rants about the food (and that touched only on the horrors of breakfast), it is nice to have access via the commissary to snack items and packets of pre-cooked tuna and chicken breast (not to mention such luxuries as Dial soap and deodorant). But the commissary is problematic. Not only is it expensive, but also it is owned and operated by the company that provides our so-called meals. And I can’t help thinking that it’s just a TINY bit of a conflict of interest when three times a day, we’re served food guaranteed to make us long for something edible, and once a week, starved for flavor, and craving something, anything that is, if nothing else, recognizable, we order very expensive food from the outside world, made available to us by the very same folks that own the kitchen services.
The collect phone call situation is shameful enough, but commissary prices are, in a word, outrageous: a Snickers Bar is $1.15, for example. A four-ounce pouch of pre-cooked chicken breast might seem almost reasonably priced when you see it on the list, but calculated by the pound, it comes to $16. A generic tea bag is a quarter. A single bar of Tone soap (for those of us who tend toward dry skin, which, in this crappy air during this miserably cold winter, is basically everyone) is $1.75.
I mean, it is really nice to swamp my sorrows in a glut of sugar a couple times a day, but I am truly trying to keep my expenses (and my weight, AND the strong possibilities that I’ll become pre-diabetic in jail) down. Thanks to you there is plenty in my account, so, at least for the next several weeks, save your pennies. I promise to let you know if I’m in need.
A final note on the commissary: as you probably know, there is no actual money in jail; correction, there is plenty of money in jail, but it doesn’t remain here for very long. Bypassing the areas where it is really needed (like for staff and maintenance) it quickly makes its way to greedier pockets. Just because our lives are devoid of coin and cash, however, does not mean that there is no currency or commerce. In here, our version of a gold standard is based on the economy of the ramen noodle. Given the current rate of inflation, the standing jail market allows for a cash equivalent value of approximately $.50 for every packet of ramen soup noodles (regardless of the flavor), which is equal in value (though maybe not quite as high) to a standard six-pack of those nuclear-orange cheese-peanut butter crackers most often found in vending machines (which we can also order from commissary).
A single pack of noodles or crackers is referred to as “a piece.” Two pieces will get you, say, a Milky Way bar. If you want the Milky Way bar, but are short on cash, an inmate who is a good guy and who is willing to trust you will spot you the two pieces until the next commissary day. An inmate who is the smarter businessman will spot you the two pieces and charge you a third one in interest. The more usurious inmate will spot you the two and charge you another two in interest. Fail to make payment at the next commissary day, and in any of the above scenarios expect to be charged double. Give your lender the runaround or (worse) the runaround with attitude or (much worse) the runaround with attitude to which you add the bald-faced, up-front, disrespect-projecting no-no of all time (banking yourself at the poker table) and you risk a bloody nose or a sprained ankle in a gym “accident.” If you are the larger dude, the accident will occur at the hands of a committee of the lender’s associates. If the altercation gets ugly enough, and public enough, all parties forfeit everything, risking the following additional consequences:
Time out: a one-week confinement to your cell for everything but meals; one half hour of daily rec time.
Reassignment into medium security, and life in the more open but way rowdier dorms.
Thirty or more days of solitary confinement.
An extension of your sentence.
If a physical injury occurs (especially one involving bloodshed), expect an extension of the extension. The more severe the physical injuries or any peripheral injuries that may eventually be associated, the longer your sentence is extended. If a deputy is involved in any way, especially if he or she sustains an injury or, God forbid, a serious injury, you will go away to an amenity-free, non-spa-like, fenced-in locality for a very long time.
It just goes to show you: whether on the inside or outside, the world of high finance comes with high risks.
And just like in the outside world, the smallest percentage of the jail population controls the largest share of the wealth. On commissary day, it is not unusual to see the guys with the most well-endowed commissary accounts hauling off huge plastic bags (think Santa Claus in an orange jumpsuit) of soap, coffee, candy bars, etc., in which, by far, the predominant item is that which doubles as Jail Camp’s unit of currency, the ramen noodle packet. Easily numbering twenty to thirty in the commissary bags of the wealthiest, these colorfully packaged, 3-ounce plastic sacks of dehydrated soup noodles also include one packet of spices, other flavorings and chemicals comprised, among many, many other things, of questionable levels of the excitotoxin, MSG (monosodium glutamate), the carcinogen, Benzopyrene and as much as 27000 milligrams of sodium.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Nutrition reported that women, at least, who enjoyed these noodles only twice a week ran a 68% greater risk of developing Metabolic Syndrome than women who didn’t.
So, what are the chances that men, since they weren’t a part of the study, are immune to the ill-effects of excitotoxins, mega doses of sodium and Benzopyrene. Good, right? Fat chance, so, lucky me that I, myself, am not at all a fan of the noodles as a snack or mealtime item, but I have a number of inmate colleagues who, without much thinking about it, likely consume between six and ten packets of noodles a week. As Metabolic Syndrome is defined by health care professionals at the Mayo Clinic as a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes by (among other things) increasing blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, the significantly greater consumption of noodles by inmates would push that 68% higher risk rate for women who eat two packets a week to probably somewhere in the vicinity of ‘off the fucking chart’ for their male counterparts consuming three to five times that amount.
So it’s probably a good thing that, since they are so popular as late night snack items, the more important function in jail of the ramen noodle pack is its use as everyone’s main ticket item for things like haircuts, toiletries not found on the regular commissary list (because we are forbidden to have them); and as ‘money’ at the poker table, the football pool, the Spades tournament. I don’t know if that means that, as a group, we eat less of the stuff than we would, but it sounds like the longer we can keep those noodles in circulation as money, the longer we can keep them from being the specific cause of Metabolic Syndrome in our very own inmate population.
I guess there’s also a major intangible that comes by virtue of resources for commissary goods, and that would be the prestige that they confer upon us when held in exceptional bulk. It’s probably a more pronounced phenomenon with the younger inmates than the older, but even in jail, the world’s stupidest adage holds: he who dies with the most stuff, wins.
THE IN WORD