Ramen: the New Prison Currency

Ruben Baart
September 4th 2016

After cigarettes, postage stamps and mackerel, a new currency emerged in US prisons: instant ramen noodles. A new study found out that ramen became a valuable commodity to inmates, as cost-cutting measures in US prisons led to the deterioration of food quality. The noodle currency is used for trading food, clothes, hygiene products and services.

A new report by Michael Gibson-Light, doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona School of Sociology, revealed how the rise of ramen value was a result of defunded prison services. After spending 12 months researching at a state prison, the author spoke to 50 inmates and seven staff members. "There was an entire informal economy based on ramen" he said.

The noodles, often referred to as 'soups', became a vital part of the black market since the beginning of 2000, control over food service switched to one private company to another. “With that change that resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the food the inmates were receiving” Gibson-Light explained. "Inmates shared countless grievances about serving sizes as well as the quality, taste or healthiness of the food".

Keeping in mind the recommended daily intake of calories is 2.400-2.800 a day for men, and 1.800-2.000 for women, both the quality and the quantity of food service had immensely decreased. Instead of getting three hot meals a day, "the second meal was reduced in size and changed to cold-cut sandwiches and a small bag of chips. Lunch was completely removed from weekend menus and portion sizes in every meal were reduced" the author said. Some facilities have cut down the cost to as low as 15 cents a meal.

At a price of 59 cents, the noodle currency is worth much more. A sweatshirt that costs roughly ten dollars would be purchased at a price of two packs of ramen. “One way or another, everything in prison is about money” a prisoner says in the report. Even though the research utilizes only one prison as its case study, a 2015 “Prison Ramen” cookbook by a former inmate confirms the durability of the Asian delicacy. Ramen is the New Black.

Sources: The Guardian, NPR

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