Tobacco, drugs, canned fish, and porn were once the bedrock of the prison economy — but the times are changing. These days, ramen and other instant soups are now the gold standard currency in state penitentiaries, according to a new study
Prison food has always had a reputation for being terrible, but it's gotten even worse in recent years, leading inmates to turn to instant noodle soups available from prison commissaries for sustenance, says Michael Gibson-Light, a sociology graduate student from the University of Arizona who authored the report.
"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," Gibson-Light said. "Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods."
Gibson-Light's study relied on the anecdotal experiences of 60 inmates over the course of a year in an unnamed state prison in the US Sun Belt region. Unlike facilities in other parts of the country, inmates at the prison were permitted to smoke and purchase tobacco from the commissary. Only two out of the 60 inmates who participated in the study said they were smoke-free. Even so, the prisoners reported that ramen was more valuable to them than cigarettes.
"Luxuries like smoking tobacco were still important," Gibson-Light wrote, noting that most of his subjects took every opportunity they could to smoke. "But affording food had taken precedent."
In the murky prison economy, Gibson-Light observed that six packets of ramen, worth $0.59 at the commissary, could be exchanged for an entire set of thermal underwear, worth $11.30.
"It's 'cause people are hungry," one inmate identified as Lou explained to Gibson-Light. "You can tell how good a man's doing [financially] by how many soups he's got in his locker."
"Prison is like the streets," the prisoner added. "You use currency for everything. In here, it's soups."
Corrections expenditures in the US have not kept up with the ballooning state prison population, which grew 343 percent from 1980 to 2013. Instead, some budget-conscious legislators have outsourced prison food services to private contractors, or scaled back inmates' meals to twice a day. The American Corrections Association recommends — but does not mandate — that prisoners receive three meals a day.
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