Instant Noodles Have Replaced Cigarettes As Prison Currency in the U.S., Study Finds

Instant noodles have replaced cigarettes as the most popular in-house currency in American state prisons, according to a recent study.  

The research, published by the University of Arizona’s school of sociology doctoral candidate Michael Gibson-Light, revealed that the instant ramen became the new dollar in most penitentiary institutions in the United States.

Its findings suggested, however, that this is not due to a lower smoking rate or cigarettes being banned in some U.S. prisons. His report highly attributed the cause of the phenomenon to the budget cuts in state prisons.

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“That change was part of a cost-cutting measure,” Gibson-Light said. “With that change that resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the food the inmates were receiving.”

Having something as essential as food, a necessity, become a currency is highly notable compared to the more sought after items in the past: cigarettes, coffee, etc.

In his research, part of a wider study on prison labor, Gibson-Light interviewed around 60 inmates over the course of a year at one unnamed state prison.

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He revealed that the quality and number of meals prisoners received in the prison have been reduced. Gibson-Light’s study highlighted a 5.6% drop  in the prison budget between 2009 and 2010 using data from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. This has reportedly caused the value of ramen, a relatively cheap meal, to significantly increase.

In a press release presented at the American Sociological Association’s convention, Gibson-Light wrote: 

“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.”

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The study revealed how an instant ramen packet, which costs around ¢59, can fetch a greater value when exchanged for other items of value. Because of the high-calorie content of the noodles, inmates also turn towards ramen for energy to workout and exercise.

Stocking up on ramen may not be a good idea though. Gibson-Light noted how arguments over ramen have erupted into disputes and violence. “I’ve seen fights over ramen,” he quoted one prisoner. “Who the fuck gonna fight about ramen noodles? That’s 15 cents on the outs!”

The trend in shifting away from tobacco and toward instant noodles has also surfaced in other investigations on prison exchanges.

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He added that a dynamic of “punitive frugality” existed in such cases wherein prisons which serve lower-quality food to save costs, pass “the burden and cost of nutrition and other needs on to inmates and their families” by pushing prisoners to find other means to get better alternatives.

Prisoners have expressed that they did not have enough calories to last them for the day and ramen provides the needed boost. One prisoner was even quoted in the report as saying, “I save all my meals to eat at once so I can actually get full.”

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