Instant Ramen noodles were the most popular item bought last year by Houston’s Harris County Jail inmates–more than 3 million packs of them, reports the Houston Chronicle. Inmates use them as barter. “I might have two soups, and someone else has two soups. We can feed four people,” said Marcus Jones, 20, who served 45 days for criminal mischief. “People trade. We played dominoes for soups.” Proceeds from sales help fund jail improvements and inmate services. Jail officials say access to the goods serves as a control mechanism aimed at keeping inmates happy “The small luxuries mean the world to them when they’re in here,” said Maj. Kim Stelter. “It’s also beneficial to the taxpayers, because a lot of this offsets costs.” The commissary grossed more than $8 million last year, with inmates buying items by the tens of thousands.
One item that draws many complaints is a tiny, flexible ballpoint pen offered for 80 cents. It has special ink that washes away so inmates cannot damage uniforms and other property. That can make using the pens difficult. The jail offers the pen because it cannot easily be used to hurt inmates or employees. “They’re very adept at turning things into weapons,” said one official. “In the jail, it’s a constant struggle between efficiency and security.”