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."