Human Rights

Move Over Cigarettes: Ramen Is the New Major Currency in U.S. Prisons

Food has gone from being a basic to a luxury good.

Photo Credit: sylvar / Flickr

Life in prison is stressful. Which is why it makes sense that cigarettes would become the prevailing form of currency traded among inmates. Or at least that used to be the case. But now according to a new study released Monday, tobacco has been replaced by a more valuable commodity in U.S. prisons: ramen noodles.

The study, conducted by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona’s school of sociology, has some pretty severe implications for the state of nutrition in prisons.

"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," said Gibson-Light in a press statement.

In the past year, Gibson-Light interviewed close to 60 inmates at an unnamed state prison as part of his research into prison labor. Over the course of the interviews, a number of prisoners informed him of this trend. Gibson-Light found that for one pack of ramen—commonly referred to as soup—an inmate would clean someone’s bunk or do their laundry for a week. Another inmate told Gibson-Light that in some extreme instances in which a debt had gone unpaid, “people [would] get killed over soup.”

The major implication of these findings is what they reveal about hunger levels in U.S. prisons. In short, food has become a luxury item. In an interview with the Guardian, Gibson-Light explained that this “change was part of a cost-cutting measure” implemented when prisons switched private firms responsible for food preparation in the early 2000s, which “resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the food the inmates were receiving.”

Gibson-Light found that inmates had gone from being fed three hot meals a day to two and one cold lunch during the week, while on weekends they received only two meals a day. Gibson-Light further illustrated this trend he termed “punitive frugality” by citing a figure in his report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that shows state spending on prisons decreased by 5.6 percent between 2009 and 2010.

The paradox of this decrease is that it’s been matched by an increase in the number of prisoners. As a result, at the prison where Gibson-Light conducted his study, a pack of ramen worth 59 cents at the commissary could now be typically exchanged for “five tailor-made cigarettes” valued at $2.  

“A lot of them, they spend their days working and exercising and they don’t have enough energy to do these things,” said Gibson-Light, who found that even the food the prisoners are fed is generally poor in quality. In one instance, Gibson-Light spotted a box containing chicken meat that was covered by warning labels reading “not fit for human consumption.”

U.S. correctional facilities must have a different definition for what constitutes "human."

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Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.