An Examination of the Food Culture at One Modern American Detention Center

Fictional and nonfictional accounts[1] of prison[2] life all point out the centrality of food in a prisoner’s life. This is not surprising because food is obviously important for survival (occupying the most basic level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), and food is generally scarce in the prison environment.

However, the prison environment of the United States in the twenty first century is quite different. It is true that the basic food ration in prison is far inferior in quantity[3] and quality, but the meager quantity of substandard food is sufficient for basic survival; prisoners generally do not have to concern themselves with the fear of starvation. Furthermore, purchases from the prison store (known as the commissary) and “strategic trading” allow prisoners to acquire (and consume) much more food than what is necessary, sufficient, or desirable. In that sense, the twenty first century American prison is a paradox in which food is simultaneously scarce and overabundant. This paradoxical environment leads us to the central thesis of this essay that food means so much more than a means for basic survival: Food performs many functions (social, economic, cultural, psychological, and even ethical), and modern prisoners must make many complex choices to manage and negotiate their relationship with food.

Food for Basic Survival 

Food, of course, is necessary for basic survival. In different times and places, food for basic survival was a real concern. In the Kolyma labor camp in the former Soviet Union, for example, no fewer than two million prisoners[4] perished because the standard food ration was simply not enough to sustain their bodies for the hard labor in the arctic climate.[5] In order to survive, one had to become an orderly to steal extra food and/or land on a “soft job.”

The standard food ration in the modern American prison is still considerably less than what most Americans eat, and food orderlies still steal large quantities of anything that they consider good. Still, what is left for an ordinary prisoner is still sufficient to sustain one’s body.

Furthermore, prisoners can purchase additional food from the prison store (“commissary”). Every Thursday a long line of large bags come into the unit, and it is not unreasonable for an observer to wonder where all these bags go week after week, given the small size of their cells (sixty-five square feet for two people).

“Most of them go to their bellies,” an insider would answer. Indeed, it is not unusual to find “very well-fed” prisoners. One inmate gained twenty pounds in a matter of three weeks after his arrest. Another (male) inmate is visibly pregnant. Other long-term residents continue to expand horizontally, testifying the amazing elasticity of a human body.[6]

In fact, food is ubiquitous in this place. The two microwaves in the unit are almost always used, as prisoners engage in one cooking project after another. A group of Mexicans band together to have a feast, making burritos, taquitos, fish tacos, and sopas, while others make pizzas, nachos, soups of various kind, and some nameless Chinese food (incidentally not made by a Chinese inmate). The highlight is the “chicken days” when the prisoners save their chickens from their meals to perform all sorts of concoctions, such as orange chickens, sweet and sour chickens, and Thai spicy chickens. The microwave cooking extends to the dessert department as well. Birthday cakes are made from cookies (chocolate chip and oatmeal), chocolate bars, milk, fruits, butter, and cereals. These ingredients also produce all types of cakes, pies, brownies, and other desserts. Some inmates even create new kinds of candies by combining and treating the existing ones. To see them work on these cooking projects can remind us of medieval alchemists except they are working for Willy Wonka in prisoner garb.

But one of the oddest concoctions has to be the “Ramen sandwich”: Open a pack of Ramen noodle, pour boiling water into the plastic pouch, wait for five minutes, drain water, and stick the noodle between two pieces of bread. It should be called “All Carb Special” in my opinion.

But in another sense, prisoners are not fed well. It is probably true that the standard food ration meets the generous legal daily requirement of 3000 calories, but this assumes that the prisoner eats two large pieces of coffee cake every morning (and sometimes more for lunch and dinner). Kitchen workers testify that many items are served well past their expiration dates, sometimes as long as two years. The “special” pecan pie that was served in one of the holidays was reportedly three years old.

Perhaps because the food is so old, fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to come by. The commissary, which offers a wide variety of chips, cookies, and chocolate, offers a very limited range and quantity of canned vegetables and no fruits.

Those who insist on healthful food must do so at their own expense, effort, and risk. It is possible to scavenge limited fruits and vegetables from other inmates who are less health conscious. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available from the black market, where kitchen workers and food orderlies sell stolen items. Thus, with enough determination and resources, one can acquire sufficient quantities of healthful food, but one must worry about occasional raids because fresh fruits and vegetables are considered contrabands. I don’t know anyone who has been sent to the punishment cell or lost any privileges for hoarding fruits, but prisoners have lost the “fruits of their labors” to the raiding parties.

Food as Currency 

In Marxist economics, a product has a “use value” and an “exchange value.” The use value for a bushel of corn, for example, is whatever the nutrient it supplies to sustain one’s body; the exchange value is whatever one can get in exchange (determined by the commodity exchange in the capitalist system). In this prison, a piece of chicken fetches $1.10 while the exchange value of a piece of fish is infinitesimally close to zero. (A Marxist would lament this disparity between the use and exchange values.)

But it is the non-perishable food from the commissary that serves as a stable currency. A commissary item has the added advantage of having a fixed price (codified in the commissary sheet) so that the inmates do not have to haggle or argue over the exchange value of any given item. They “know,” for example, that a large bag of chips ($1.90) is worth more than a pack of tuna ($1.45), which has the equal exchange value of a bag of oatmeal cookies (1680 calories, 72 grams of fat, including 18 grams of trans fat, and 228 grams of carbohydrate) and is worth more than a Hershey bar ($0.75) or a bag of trail mix ($0.55). The smallest denomination in this “underground economic system” is a “soup” (a pack of ramen noodles) and was it was valued at $0.35 until the prison arbitrarily raised the price of the beef and chicken flavors to $0.40 while keeping the chili flavor at $0.35.

This price fluctuation protects inmates from inflation. A pack of tuna was a dollar at one point, and “a tuna” became synonymous to “a dollar.” The price of a tuna has gone up, but inmates continue to price their goods and services in tunas, so they have adjusted for inflation without nominally raising the price.

The case of “a soup” created a peculiar phenomenon because the same denominational currency now suddenly had different values. This disparity, however, did not stop the inmates from pricing their goods and services in terms of “soups,” which had been firmly established as a monetary unit in the minds of the inmates. It did, however, allow shrewd peddlers to profit by offering chili soups and demanding beef or chicken soups.

A soup may be the smallest denomination, but its value should not be underestimated. The local prison lore has it that one inmate killed another inmate over a soup. So if anything is too cheap to be measured in the prison currency (aside from the fish), it is the life of a prisoner whose use and exchange values plummeted as soon as s/he checked in.

Underground Economic Activities 

Once a stable currency is established, all kinds of economic activities flourish in prison. The most basic economic activity is simple bartering. It is used, for example, to work around the commissary restrictions on how much one can order each week: A health-conscious runner tries to get more than the maximum of five packs of trail mix per week so that he can continue to refuse the standard food ration of dubious quality. A Jewish man asks another inmate to get him a bag of pork rind. He is really Jewish; he just doesn’t follow the sanction against eating pork (to his mother’s dismay!), but the inflexible institution would not understand his idiosyncratic belief system. A diabetic man needs more than one bag of popcorn to keep his sugar level, and a writer needs more than one stack of paper per week to survive.

Some inmates offer their own goods and services for prison currencies. For example, one can subcontract cleaning of his/her own cell for $4.00, get a haircut for $3.00, or have one’s shirt ironed for $1.00. Others make greeting cards ($3.00 to $5.00), bracelets ($3.00), and other accessories. One inmate was unthreading a sock and weaving it into a key chain (keys not included) with the shape of a heart and a cross inside, but he was transported to another prison before he could set up his shop.

Illegal goods and services can be obtained for prison currencies as well. The criminal element in prison (this is not a tautology!) offers tattooing, “home-brewed” alcohol, cigarettes, and illicit drugs. One young inmate was even approached by a gang member to sell his body with this dubious rhetoric: “You know, you can live like a king in this place and never have to grow hungry. I know how to keep your locker always full.” Goethe’s Erlkonig could not have been more persuasive!

When verbal persuasion is not enough, some criminals take their activities to the next level: thefts and extortions. Expensive items are the prime targets for the thieves, such as a radio ($44.20), shoes ($54.80), and a watch ($36.40), but thieves would steal anything if it is unguarded.

Unpurchasable items are also targeted. For example, each cell is supposed to come with a plastic stool, but this is a favorite target for the gangs. They steal stools from the cells and try to lease them to the original owners or to other stoolless inmates. “You can sit down and be comfortable for only $20 a week.” Thieves always appear caring, and they appeal to their customers’ self-interests.

Another thief created a “hostage situation” by kidnapping another’s radio. If the victim wanted his own $45 radio back, he would have to pay only $20 worth of food. It was a bargain the victim could not resist!

Some gangs claim to own cells, and they charge “rent” to the occupants. Unfortunately, the landlord doesn’t provide any repair services, and the tenants cannot be evicted for nonpayment.

Then, there is the good old-fashioned extortion: “I will kill you if you don’t pay.” The ransom can be as inexpensive as a couple of soups or as expensive as the indefinite recurring payment of $125 a week. Perhaps one should be flattered by a high ransom amount since nobody else would tell an inmate that his/her life is worth that much.

But by far, the most prevalent underground economic activity is gambling; soups, chips, and stamps exchange hands everyday, and there is always someone in the unit who is carrying thousands of dollars in debt—how many soups is that? Gamblers’ lockers contain large quantities of food items (that can put a convenience store owner to shame), but when they become hungry, they go around begging. One inmate, for whom English is not his first language, calls them “hungry ghosts,” as they wander around from cell to cell, asking to have pity on them. (I taught him the correct English word “parasite.”) But for the gamblers, their food is money, and who would be foolish enough to eat his own money? Gamblers always find naive benefactors to feed them.

Food as a Calendar 

Prisoners live in the world in which days of the week are rendered mostly meaningless. For them, there is little functional difference between Tuesdays and Thursdays for example. Furthermore, calendars are classified as contraband, making it more difficult for the prisoners to keep track of time.

In such an environment, the smallest variations are magnified disproportionately, and the variation in what is served for meals is arguably one of the most salient. In addition, the menu is mostly cyclic (albeit not strictly so), leading the prisoners to identify the day of the week by food. “It’s Wednesday because we had hamburgers for lunch.” “I smell fish. It’s fish Friday.” Confusion arises when certain items are served out of rotation. “How can it be Wednesday today? We didn’t have cinnamon rolls for breakfast.”

Food as an Unending End of a Noose

In their memoirs, we find the stunning resilience of the tortured prisoners in Nazi death camps and Soviet prison labor camps, and we wonder how they summoned their wills to go on living without any real hope of ending their wretched existence. We are surprised, then, to learn that some of their reasons are incredibly trivial. “We will get an extra sugar cube today. Why not wait until then?” “We’ll get the double portion of the prison gruel tonight. Certainly, we can’t die until then.”

The fate for modern American prisoners is kinder, but many prisoners feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of fighting the Feds (echoing Shalamov’s phrase “The Ministry of Internal Affairs does not make mistakes … and sentencing is an inevitable sequel to arrest”) and they openly talk about the possibility of ending their lives. If a corpus linguist were to build a corpus[7] out of the prisoners’ spoken words, s/he would find words like “noose” and “guillotine” among high frequency words (although their frequencies would be eclipsed by the frequency of unmentionable words!)

In that sense, the difference between modern American prisoners and the zeks[8] is quantitative rather than qualitative.[9] “Why, it’s chicken day today,” an American prisoner would say. “Surely, death can wait until then!” Regardless of the day of the week, there is always a promise of some anticipated food around the corner. So the prisoners go on, delaying the “noose project” a little longer until they eat that “monkey bread”[10] tomorrow morning.

Food Snobs 

Although food is the focal point in the lives of so many prisoners, some inmates opt out of the food culture and the underground economic activities altogether. For them, the food culture is so prison-like; the very fact that food occupies the heart of the prison life only feeds their aversion. For others, it is a moral stance. They may have never understood the concept of money laundering in freedom, but in prison, they see for the first time where their money goes, and how it generates criminal activities. “It’s for a good cause,” a prisoner tries to coax one of the moral food snobs into buying a raffle ticket. He may have been fooled before, but the newly enlightened food snob now knows better.

By saying “no” to the food culture and the underground economic system, food snobs are symbolically trying to find their way out of prison. They are determined to stay out of the nefarious influence of the prison, its criminal culture, and what it represents. Perhaps their symbolic refusal will one day physically set them free from prison. Unlike the criminals, the moral food snobs know they will never come back.


Food is undeniably important in the lives of prisoners. It fulfills the basic bodily needs, it serves as a stable currency, and it performs many other functions. There is no question that food makes the prisoners’ wretched existence more tolerable. But at the same time, food is also an invisible shackle that binds the prisoners and draws them closer to the criminal culture and criminal activities. Thus, lies the dilemma of a modern American prisoner.

I do not envy the prisoners of the Nazi death camps or the Soviet labor camps, but their options were simpler: eat if there is any food. A modern American prisoner has many perplexing options: to eat or not to eat, what to eat, how much to eat, etc. But these choices come with not-so-obvious consequences of how one should relate to the criminal culture and criminal activities.

Disillusioned by how the government has treated them, modern American prisoners no longer believe in the much touted dictum, “America, the land of the free!” But they certainly have plenty of choices when it comes to food. If for nothing else, modern American prisoners should applaud their country and the Bureau of Prison for offering such “wonderful choices” to the prisoners. After all, isn’t this what this country is all about?


1. I have consulted the following sources:

Franki, V. (19??). Man’s Search for meaning.

Ginzburg, E.S. (1975). Journey into the Whirlwind. San Diego, CA: Harvest.

Shalamov, V. (1994). Kolyma Tales. London: Penguin.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (2002). The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper.

Solzhenitsyn, A. One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Signet Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (2009). In the First Circle. New York: Harper.

2. Technically “prison” refers to a penitentiary and “jail” to a detention center. But these terms are used interchangeably in this essay.

3. This is relative to what an average American eats. Of course, such relative comparison doesn’t mean much, considering how much an average American eats.

4. The number comes from John Glad’s toward to Kolyma Tales (pp. x—xi). He credits Robert Conquest’s (1978) Kolyma.

5. As reported in Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, prisoners in Kolyma were forced to work as long as 16 hours a day (summer) sometimes in 60 degrees below zero (winter).

6. Of course, the other extreme is also possible. Many inmates easily lose 20, 30, 50, or even over 100 pounds naturally or consciously.

7. A corpus is a collection of spoken or written words.

8. “Zek” refers to a prisoner of the former Soviet labor prison camp.

9. However, one could argue that the quantitative difference amounts to qualitative difference.

10. “Monkey bread” is a weaved square pastry with cinnamon and icing on the top.