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Coronavirus Shuts Down Ramen Soup Plant; Prisoners in Michigan Limited on Purchase Amounts

In a memo from the state Department of Corrections (DOC), Michigan prisoners were told that “until the supplier has made a full recovery in production, there may be times when specific ramen products are out of stock.”

DOC spokesman Chris Gautz confirmed on June 14, 2020, that the ramen noodle plant was indeed shut down and that prisoners were now limited to purchasing only half the amount of ramen soup they could before — 15 packages every two weeks, instead of the usual 30.

In early April 2020, reports surfaced that American sales of ramen had spiked 578 percent at the beginning of widespread lockdowns to combat COVID-19. No shortages have been reported other than the one plaguing DOC. In May 2020 a ramen factory in suburban Richmond, Virginia, reported seven positive tests for the disease among its 420 workers, but Maruchan Virginia Inc., a subsidiary of Toyo Suisan Kaisha Ltd. of Tokyo, said the Virginia factory remained open and running.

Prisoners rely on ramen soup to supplement the food that they get from the dining hall. From January to May 2020, Michigan prisoners bought 2.5 million packages, Gautz said, and ramen products were five of the top 10 items purchased in prison commissaries, which are operated under contract with Missouri-based Keefe Group.

Ramen soup is often the key ingredient in dishes made by prisoners. They might add packaged meats, such as turkey or beef “logs,” some cheese, and maybe some vegetables if they can get them. Many prisons are getting rid of microwaves as unnecessary luxuries, but if one is available, all the better for cooking ramen meals, said Leon El-Alamin. He served several years in a state prison on drug and weapons charges before moving on after his release to establish the MADE (Money, Attitude, Direction, and Education) Institute, a Flint-based organization that helps former prisoners and at-risk youths.

Prisoners also use ramen soup as currency in prison, according to a University of Arizona study. But no one had to do a study to find that out. Just ask a prisoner. El-Alamin said ramen soup is “probably the No. 1 product people use to sustain themselves” in prison. He called it “maybe the ideal food” for prison.

“You can do so much with a ramen noodle,” he said.

El-Alamin confirmed that ramen soup is used like money in prison, but Gautz denied he was aware of that fact. However, he noted that certain varieties are more popular than others.

“Spicier varieties that they use when they make their own meals in their housing unit” are preferred, Gautz said.

PLN has previously reported on the popularity of ramen soup in prison, noting that the packages are sometimes called “tasty little death traps” because of their lack of nutritional value. But they’re cheap and filling, which is what counts for many prisoners. [See PLN, Aug. 2018, p. 1.]

The COVID-19 pandemic not only impacted the supply of ramen soups in the Michigan prison system, but it also required DOC to recruit the National Guard to help test every prisoner for the virus. As of July 14, 2020, all of the system’s nearly 38,000 prisoners had been tested, with about 3,800 of those results coming back positive for COVID-19. While employee testing at DOC is not mandatory, 385 staff were also positive. The disease had claimed the lives of three staff members and 68 prisoners.

In a June 2020 news release, DOC said it “was incredibly proactive and acted swiftly and effectively in minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” meeting or exceeding guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with “unprecedented cleaning and hygiene measures.”

Some DOC prisoners and employees disagree, complaining that classes and programs that did not allow for practicing social distancing should have been stopped sooner. El-Alamin and other prisoner advocates encourage Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to use her clemency powers to release medically vulnerable prisoners who pose the lowest risk to the public.