Prison Ramen: The Instant Noodle Economy

Once upon a time, cigarettes were the currency of choice when those behind bars needed to barter. But these days, America’s prisoners are trading with ramen – Maria Godoy, NPR

In a recent study by  Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona School of Sociology reports that cost-cutting practices in US prisons have lead to instant noodles surpassing tobacco as the currency of choice for the underground prison black market

During his 12-month investigation, Gibson-Light conducted interviews with nearly 60 inmates and prison staff members, and also observed prisoners involved in work. Among his observations it was noted that cost-cutting at detention facilities have many inmates complaining about the both the quantity and quality of food

“Inmates shared countless grievances about serving sizes as well as the quality, taste or healthiness of the food,” Gibson-Light says. “It was common for some to compare their meals to those that they received during previous prison stays, sometimes years or decades prior, which they claimed contained more and better food.”

The Marshall Project (a nonprofit journalism outlet focused on criminal justice) reported:
“While the jail maintains they are providing sufficient calories (the recommended daily intake is 2,400-2,800 a day for men, and 1,800-2,000 for women), prisoners said they combated their hunger by licking syrup packets and drinking excessive amounts of water.”

This conditions have led to instant noodles packets (or ‘soups’ as they are known) have gained popularity as a de facto prison currency. ​


Instant noodles packets (or ‘soups’ as they are known) have gained popularity as a de facto prison currency

“Prisoners are so unhappy with the quality and quantity of prison food that they receive that they have begun relying on ramen noodles — a cheap, durable food product — as a form of money in the underground economy,” he said. “Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods.”

These goods includes other food items, clothing, hygiene products, and even services, such as laundry and bunk cleaning. Others use instant noodles as bargaining chips in gambling when playing card games or participating in football pools, he said.

“‘You can tell how good a man’s doing [financially] by how many soups he’s got in his locker. ‘Twenty soups? Oh, that guy’s doing good!’

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