Prisons

Ramen Noodles Replacing Cigarettes as Prison Currency

The rise of ramen noodles as prison currency can be blamed on cost-cutting that leaves prisoners hungry, says a new study.

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RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom

Cigarettes have long served as one form of currency between prison inmates, but they're being supplanted in the bartering hierarchy by an unlikely candidate: packaged ramen noodles. So says researcher Michael Gibson-Light, in a paper presented at the 2016 American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting this week. He attributed the shift—which can be seen even in prisons where smoking is still allowed—to "punitive frugality" stemming from prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting, and the resulting unhappiness among inmates over the quality and amount of food they're served.

"Services are cut back and many costs are passed on to inmates in an effort to respond to calls to remain both tough on crime and cost effective," said Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. "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." Like cigarettes—and, increasingly, in place of them and other erstwhile prison-bartering staples, like stamps—they're used to exchange for other goods, services such as laundry, and bargaining chips in football pools or card games.

The rise of ramen noodles as prison currency is just one of Gibson-Light's findings from interviewing inmates and staff at an all-male, Sunbelt-area state prison from May 2015 to May 2016. Honing in on inmates who worked as laborers, his research led him to focus largely on a spectrum of monetary practices among inmates.

While his research was only conducted at one prison, the ramen noodle finding is in line with other investigations into prison markets, he noted. "What we are seeing is a collective response—across inmate populations and security levels, across prison cliques and racial groups, and even across states—to changes and cutbacks in prison food services."

"Prison staff members as well as members of the inmate population provided narratives of the history of changes in prison food—the past few decades have seen steady decreases in the quality and quantity of inmate food," Gibson-Light said.

Gustavo Alvarez, who spent more than a decade in a California men's prison, published a book last year on creative ramen recipes from behind bars (titled, aptly, Prison Ramen). "Large buckets lined with plastic trash bags would be used to cook huge spreads," including "dirty ramen," adorned with canned Vienna sausages and green beans, Alvarez told NPR. "It can bring a couple of guys who don't have much together. Why? Because maybe a guy has a bag of chips—that's all he has to his name. And this other guy is blessed to have a couple of soups. Well, they get together, they make an interesting meal."

A 2014 Vanity Fair story on prison food also yielded a "prison chicken nuggets" recipe: "Take ramen noodles, boil it down to literally mush. You ball it up, put a piece of cheese and beef summer sausage in the middle. Make sure it's tightly wound up. You cook it in the microwave for ten minutes until it's brown."

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  1. At least they’re not using weak skinny guys any more?

    1. “I sold you to White Power Bill for two cartons of cigarettes.”

  2. Looks like someone has finally figured out how to cure smoking.

  3. Ramen noodles are delicious.

    I wonder how soon before the IRS demands payment on income derived from prison gambling in cups of Ramen at a rate of 35%.

    1. Ramen noodles are delicious.

      False.

      1. Loser.

      2. All depends on how they’re prepared.

    2. Yes they are. I know too many people who have actively rejected ramen noodles because they think eating them says something about their economic status. Even in flush times I eat several packets of ramen every week.

      1. Ramen can be tasty once in a while. But several times a week? Think of all the OTHER tasty food you could be eating.

        1. Simply too many carbohydrates!

  4. It can bring a couple of guys who don’t have much together.

    Yeah, prison has a way of doing that.

    1. Is that a roundabout way of referring to struggle snuggles?

      1. I think its wrong to reduce the wonders of “Male Bonding” down to rape / shankings.

        I imagine many inmates suddenly realize = here i am with all this free time, and a thousand other interesting and complex personalities to reflect about life with. Its why so many have fulfilled their time prison having gained deep wisdom and insight into the collective human experience, and go on to become some of our best social-psychologists.

        1. Its why so many have fulfilled their time prison having gained deep wisdom and insight into the collective human experience, and go on to become some of our best social-psychologists.

          Oswald Bates agrees with your flatulent, interspecular vaginohermaphrotisationing.

    2. “My cellmate told me he was gonna make me his girlfriend tonight. My wife was gonna bring me a cake with a knife baked in it, but she didn’t show up.”

      “Maybe you could tell your cellmate that you don’t like him that way.”

      “Nah. I think i’ll just close my eyes and power through it.”

  5. Of all the lousy aspects to the American prison system, this is one of the ones I can’t bring myself to care about all that much. Prison rape? Horrible thing, needs attention. Solitary confinement? Same thing. Food’s not good? I don’t know, maybe don’t commit crimes because prison is not supposed to be enjoyable?

    1. Also, de-privatize prisons but thens pretend abuse and mismanagement at federally-run facilities is not a thing.

    2. When only people who deserve to be in prison are in prison, sure. Until then, I have a lot of sympathy for a good portion of the prison population.

      The food doesn’t need to be good, but it needs to be adequate.

      1. Agreed, but eliminate victimless crimes and watch me not give a shit how bad the prison food is. It will be absolutely shocking how little I can care.

        1. Yeah, if you assault, kill, rape or rob someone, you can go to hell for all I care.

      2. Yeah, don’t starve the prisoners.

        I’m actually more sympathetic to prisoners than welfare recipients. Welfare recipients are on it by choice, so they should only get minimal nutritional gruel to encourage them to get off of it. Prisoners should have three square meals a day. Basic cafeteria food, nothing fancy.

    3. Well, from the article, it appears that prisoners have access to microwaves!

  6. Prisons should offer treatment for Ramen addiction. So when they get out they don’t run around mugging people for money to feed their Ra-mania.

  7. Because maybe a guy has a bag of chips?that’s all he has to his name. And this other guy is blessed to have a couple of soups. Well, they get together, they make an interesting meal.”

    Add a little toilet wine, and you got yourself a gourmet meal.

    1. So, where do they rank on Zagat? Has Bourdaine or Zimmern weighed in on this?

  8. “prison chicken nuggets” recipe:

    Sounds like someone has figured out Mickey D’s secret.

  9. Simon Adebisi is rolling over in his grave.

    1. While simultaneously raping Peter Schibetta’s corpse again

  10. Nissin UFO Yakisoba noodle bowl > just about every packaged ramen ever.

    1. For a second there I thought you were babbling incoherently.

  11. This is much less surprising than the Tide detergent thing.

  12. The rise of ramen noodles as prison currency can be blamed on cost-cutting that leaves prisoners hungry, says a new study.

    Perhaps it could be blamed on fact cups of ramen are absolutely delicious.

  13. The rise of ramen noodles as prison currency can be blamed on cost-cutting that leaves prisoners hungry, says a new study.

    Or, just the fact you’re not allowed to smoke in most prisons anymore… But, you don’t get your name in the paper if you say that.

  14. Can definitely verify this.

    And a nice story… locked up on Christmas, we made one of those huge ramen based spreads in a big trash bag. Not for us, the guys who maxed out on commissary every week had gotten together to make it to feed all the indigent inmates who never got commissary money. The guards were so impressed and floored by this they let us out during count and security lockdowns to cook it and push together tables. And they probably felt bad as Christmas Eve they did a massive raid for contraband.
    Guys getting together to each contribute some ramen and some chips etc for a shared meal was also very common; but that was limited to guys who were already friends.
    Some of the prison meals were actually good though, and the good hot meals sold for 3 ramens per tray. Cold meals for 2 ramens per tray. One of the meals was so good I paid 15 ramens for 5 extra trays. And I paid 10 ramens per week to someone to get my breakfast trays and save the thinks I liked from it while I slept.

    It’s really not just ramen though, that’s the most popular but any food from commissary was treated as currency and on a list with a fixed value in dollars for use to pay gambling debts; just rounded to the nearest half dollar. And you definitely had to pay in better food than ramen if you wanted pot, tobacco, porn mags, or other minor contraband.

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