Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Breaking Noodles


I have been doing a lot of transcription these last few weeks.  Thanks to the typing requirement at Strath Haven High School, the mechanics of transcription is not difficult for me.  However, it's hard work.  It's hard to hear my voice and frustrating when I miss opportunities to ask good questions.  Sometimes I seem to completely lose sight about what the project is about.  It's hard to hear the women's voices and digest their stories.  I find that I am often in a bad mood after transcribing.  Mad at me, mad at us, sad.

It is difficult to understand the ingredients of a good interview.  Sometimes a question falls completely flat with one woman, and then, with the next person, it opens a long, rich, narrative.  While my questions, manner and interaction with the participant is certainly crucial, I think there are some people who are more inclined than others to tell their stories.  Some people have a story on the tip of their tongues that they really want to tell and will tell it in spite of my questions, not because of them.  Some women may be hesitant at first, and then open up. Others will never give an answer longer than a few sentences.  Some women just start talking and while I can steer a little bit, what I really need to do is get out of the way.

The last interview that I transcribed was with Participant #23, a 30 year old African-American woman who was incarcerated for 7 months for stealing a woman's purse.  It was her first time being incarcerated.  The case took 2 years to resolve, during which time she was living in the community, showing up at court from time to time to have the case continued.  She was homeless during those years, and had secured a spot in a long-term shelter for women 2 weeks before, for whatever reason, the case was adjudicated and she was sent to York.  Nice coordination between social service systems, but that's another story.

More than a storytelling session, I would describe the interview with Participant #23 as a spoken word performance.  She talked very rhythmically, frequently repeating "You know what I mean," like a chorus.  We got off to a pretty rough start, but then, she just started talking.  Here, I share four excerpts.  The first two describe how women cook in prison and negotiate who they cook with and what they bring to the process.  This woman didn't have any money until the very end of her stay, so she could not buy any commissary products for the first few months.  She relied on other women to share with her.  In the third quote, she describes what commissary can represent.  The final passage talks about coming home.  Notice that she talks about specific foods when describing what she hoped to eat upon release, but then when she actually talks about eating on the outside, she describes who she ate with, not what she ate.  Point being that eating is rarely about the food.
(Note: names have been changed and some slang deleted.)

Breaking Noodles

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  There’s a lot of stuff going on.  There’s a lot, lot going on.  It’s like going to the store.  The grocery store, you know?  “Oh, well, I’m gonna cook tonight.”  You know.  “Well, I got a pack of noodles,” you know what I’m saying?  “Cook for, cook for me, too!”  “Well, I got a pack of noodles, too!”  You know what I’m saying.  Then before you know it, it’s like 4 or 5 heads on a bag of noodles.
 I never cooked.  I would put in a bag of noodles ‘cause I didn’t know how to cook.  You know what I mean?  But what they cook is, they take a garbage bag and they put, they take 2 garbage bags and put them together.  And they crush up.  They put like, 6 bags of noodles all in, like I said, if it’s 6 people, it’s 6, 6 bags of, 6 packages of noodles.  Put ‘em in there, crush ‘em up, you know what I’m saying?  Put the water, put the water in there and let the noodles get soft.  We would eat out of a garbage bag.  2 garbage bags together, like one inside the other. 
I had one girl in my room that was, you know, she was like thorough, like, cooking.  You know what I’m saying?  And she’ll cut up the meat, and put hot sauce and jelly in it and stir it up.  You know what I’m saying?  And with the meat, and make it good with the poppa and stuff.  And I knew she could cook, so if she was cooking, I be like “Yo.” Like, you know.  Or, if I had to, I’d be like, “Yo, cook!  I got 2 bags, I got 2 bags of noodles.”  You know, or something like.   I would always cook with somebody I was, you know what I’m saying, comfortable with, or cool with, or whatever.  You know what I’m saying?

Borrowing Bowls

So they had me in this, it’s like a gym room with mad beds.  Mad beds.  And that’s when I bumped into my homegirl, Sharon.  You know what I’m saying.  And this other girl, I, someone had braided my hair, then the other girl was like, “You know, do you need your hair braided?”  I’m like, “Yeah, but I ain’t got no money to pay you.”  She’s like, “Naw, I’ll braid it.”  You know what I’m saying?  So she just wanted to braid my hair.  Then the other girl seen her braiding my hair, she like, “You ain’t braiding her shit right!  Why you got her shit lookin’ like that?”  Then another girl want to braid my hair.  They was like, “Naw, have Sharon do it, Sharon thorough.”  And that’s how I met Sharon.  You know what I’m saying…
Yeah, that’s when I met Sharon.  Then, you know, we would go sit and, um, we’ll talk about, you know what I’m saying, n*****s, talk about the outside world, like, “Oh, yeah, I was f****n’ with this n****r.” And, “Do you know this n****r?”  Or, “Where you from?”  And, “Oh I know, Oh yeah, I know him!”  You know what I’m saying?  You end up knowing somebody that knows somebody, then it’s like, you know what I’m saying?  Sitting with cup of somethin’.  “Yo, let me, you know what I’m saying, let me get something, you know, I’m f****d up man.”  You know what I’m saying?  And if they got it, they look out.  If they don’t, they can’t.  You know what I’m saying?  It is what it so…  
Then, you know what I’m saying, I bumped into Sharon, I’m like, “Sharon, what up?”  She like, “Open up!  What’s going on?”  She’s like, “Yo, you straight? You know.  I’m gonna make you something to eat tonight.  You know.  I just got my commissary.”  She coming with 3, 4, big-ass bags.  You know what I’m saying?  “I’m straight.  You know what I mean. I’m gonna get you a cup of noodles, you know what I’m saying.  Get you, get you, a poppa or whatever, you know what I’m saying.”  I’m like, “Yeah, man, that’s what’s up.”  Then, you know, I had to b-, use somebody else bowl ‘cause I ain’t have no bowl.  You know what I’m saying.  “Yo, you can have this bowl.”  You know what I’m saying? “I’m straight.  I got a couple of bowls.”  Like, sometimes people look out for you, like.  You know what I’m saying?  Sometimes people don’t.  

Providing for Yourself

You talk about the food, but the food is not what everybody’s concerned about, of what’s going on in jail.  It’s how the people are, how they treat you, how the COs are, what’s going on in jail.  Like, you know, fights going on, who’s doing this, who’s sleeping with who?  Like, you know.  Who got the latest news?  Who got, you know what I mean.  And in jail, basically, like commissary’s like the store.  It shows that you have money.  If you don’t have no food on your books, if you don’t have no book, you know what I mean, if you can’t provide for yourself in jail, it’s like, you the scum of the earth.  They talk about you.  They look at you funny like, you know what I’m saying?  Shit like that.


A Good Meal

P#23:  When you get out of jail, it’s like, I just want to eat something so good.  It’s like, “I want steak and peppers with onions and white rice and corn.”  You just want, you just want a good meal.  You just want to eat good.  Just want to eat good.  Like, you don’t give a f*** about nothing else.  You know you want to get dressed.  You know you want to have fun.  You know, but you know, that you want to eat a good meal.  Something that’s fulfilling, something that you can take your time and eat.  Um, where you don’t have somebody tell you, oh, “Hurry up! Hurry up!”  You know.  This, that and the third.  Like, you know, you get a, you want a quality meal.

Amy:  So, did you get that?  I mean, did you have that meal, when you first came out?

P#23:  No, I didn’t.  No.  I have been having good meals because I do family day on Sunday.  Me, my sister, my brother and my nephew, my nieces.  My son, you know.  We have family dinner on Sundays, so, I feel like I’m getting it now.  Yeah, but it took a minute.