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Why Ramen Noodles Have Become the Most Popular Currency in US Jails

While conducting interviews with inmates at an unnamed state prison, University of Arizona sociologist Michael Gibson-Light found that instant noodles had actually surpassed tobacco as the “most prized currency” at the prison.

by Nick Rose
Aug 23 2016, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user displayonly

Prison food is horrible. It not only looks and tastes like garbage, according to the many who have eaten it, but it actually is trash in many cases.

This brutal reality means that prisoners—who don't have much else to do with their time besides working out and waiting around to be rehabilitated—have to get creative when it comes eating food that will sustain them, or eating any "real" food at all.

And while instant ramen is generally considered unhealthy, lowbrow, and overly processed by people on the other side of prison walls, these little packets of deep-fried noodles have become big deal in jail and, in some cases, eclipsed the ultimate prison currency—cigarettes. We've known for a while now that instant ramen is popular in jail, but according to a sociologist from the University of Arizona, the situation has become so dire in American prisons that prisoners are having to smuggle far more food than in the past.

While conducting interviews with inmates at an unnamed state facility, sociologist Michael Gibson-Light found that instant noodles had actually surpassed tobacco as the "most prized currency" at the prison. Even though he was initially studying prison labor, like any good academic, he thought that this unexpected finding warranted further research, and so he looked a national data and found a similar trend away from smokes and toward noodles.

READ MORE: What It's Like to Eat Some of the Worst Prison Food in America

According to Gibson-Light, the reason for this recent shift, in large part, is the financial incentives of private prisons. "That change was part of a cost-cutting measure," he told Guardian US. "With that change that resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the food the inmates were receiving." And with private corporations running the carceral system, there isn't much incentive to provide decent food for society's least favorite group.

But why ramen? Well, it seems to hit all of the basic prison smuggling requirements: cheap, long-lasting, and (relatively) accessible. It's also a matter of just getting through the day. "[Ramen] is easy to get and it's high in calories," Gibson-Light explained. "A lot of them, they spend their days working and exercising and they don't have enough energy to do these things. From there it became more a story, why ramen in particular."

And while a lot of people like to complain or brag about how much instant ramen they ate while they were in college and had no money, it ain't as bad as prison. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to close with an actual quote from Gibson-Light's report.

"One way or another, everything in prison is about money," a "soft-spoken" prisoner named Rogers reportedly said. "Soup is money in here. It's sad but true."

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