Trafficking and Trading

By Jay Goodman

When you think of trafficking and trading, all sorts of nefarious activities probably come to mind- drug deals over the border, arms sales to Middle Eastern terrorists, moonshiners racing their alcohol-laden hot rods through the Carolinas. But the TDCJ reality of what happens when someone is trafficking is much different than those things you imagine.

Ramen noodles are to the prison economy what the dollar bill is to the U.S. economy. This basic unit of currency is widely exchanged for all sorts of things, and all of it, according to prison rules, is illegal.

Let's say, for example, that you're on one of those units where you only make store once a month. It just so happens that you like peanut butter and jelly, but by the time you get to the commissary window, they are out of your beloved strawberry preserves. Oh, the agony. Oh, the pain. But wait, there's hope! Your homeboy tells you that Big Junior bought three jellies yesterday. You go to Big Junior and see if he'll take chili-flavored ramen soups ($1.50) for one bottle of his strawberry jelly ($1.30). Junior has plenty, of course, so he swaps the jelly and makes 204 profit for his trouble. It's a win-win. Right? Wrong. Because even though enforcement of the rule is lax, you could very well get a case for that jelly if the officers were to find out about it. You'd think two grown men out to be able to decide what to keep and what they want to trade from their locker, as long as what’s being swapped is not banned from the unit.

I could understand if big Junior was selling cell phones for soups. (Which is not likely, because the officers guard their turf over this commodity.) Then the TDCJ would not, only have to intervene, but the intervention would make sense, because cell phones are illegal in prison. (There's a whole other debate right there, but for now, for the sake of argument, I'm drawing the line at what TDCJ considers a violation of the rules and what society considers dangerous for the inmate to possess.)

Unfortunately for us all, there's a pretty hot trade on every TDCJ unit for K2 or synthetic marijuana. There's no argument that this is a dangerous substance made all the more dangerous by its close association with "harmless" marijuana. Anyone can get this stuff on any unit. It's so small, even diligent searches usually don't find it, and believe me, diligent searches are rarer than hen’s teeth in here. A simple flush of the toilet, and it all disappears if a shakedown occurs. And, for whatever reason, TDCJ hasn't started using urine tests that detect the drug, at least on any unit I've been assigned. So, we have people, literally, barking like a dog or moaning like a disembodied spirit, or, worse, they get "stuck". They smoke a toochie, then start walking down the stairs, and halfway down, they just stop like a spell has been cast on them or something. They don't respond to you even if you yell in their ear. Sadly, they don't always stay on the stairs, either. I've seen more than one man tumble down them while high on K2. Now, if the TDCJ wants to put a stop to this stuff, I'm all for it, because this stuff is getting people killed. But, as far as I can tell, no one has ever been killed, or even slightly injured by a ramen noodle soup. Maybe in the scheme of things, we could prioritize a little bit.

Now, it makes me sad to say this, but I can't think of anyone who follows this rule. Think of it kind of like the speed limit, except even more pointless. The fact is, no one follows a rule they don't understand the reasons for, and for the most part, the trafficking and trading rules make no sense. We are all already living in a society that has gone rule and law crazy. I truly believe the founding fathers, if they were to rise up from the grave this moment, would immediately call another Constitutional Convention and start over, because what the system has become is very different from what they envisioned. Here's why. The founders understood that there is no such thing as the pointless law or rule. Making and enforcing rules over someone else is an exercise of power. It's a declaration, "I can do whatever I want to do to you, because I'm in control and you're not." And these little power plays have become ubiquitous in the TDCJ and throughout U.S. governments on every level.

So, just like with any bad law (and Prohibition leaps immediately to mind), those under the oppression of such laws find a myriad of ways around them. If I give several soups to a fellow that doesn't make store, this is against the rules. But, if I "accidentally" leave several soups on a table in the dayroom, and my buddy happens to "find them" a few seconds later, well, isn't that fortunate for him? There's no rule against me losing a few soups. And, as far as I know, there's no rule against finding some, either. There you go. No rules broken, no harm done. But isn't that sad, when an act of kindness must be done in subterfuge?

One last thought on this. Consider whether or not the TDCJ would be able to exercise more and better influence if they didn't make up stupid rules. I mean, if the rules they gave us were serious and seriously enforced, there would be a greater institutional respect for the rules and the officers. As it is, the institution passes pointless rules, the officers refuse to enforce pointless rules, and the inmates, as is the human condition, push the boundaries of what rules are to be pointless to the greatest extent. It's a dangerous and slippery slope.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez