Ramen noodles are overtaking tobacco as the most popular currency in US prisons, according a new study released on Monday.
A new report by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona’s school of sociology, found the decline in quality and quantity of food available in prisons due to cost-cutting has made ramen noodles a valuable commodity. “[Ramen] is easy to get and it’s high in calories,” Gibson-Light said. “A lot of them, they spend their days working and exercising and they don’t have enough energy to do these things. From there it became more a story, why ramen in particular.”
Gibson-Light interviewed close to 60 inmates over the course of a year at one state prison as part of a wider study on prison labor. He did not identify the prison to protect the confidentiality of the inmates.
He found that the instant soup has surpassed tobacco as the most prized currency at the prison. He also analyzed other nationwide investigations that he says found a trend towards using ramen noodles in exchanges. “One way or another, everything in prison is about money,” one soft-spoken prisoner named Rogers said in the report. “Soup is money in here. It’s sad but true.”
It also shows the precarious nature of food quality and standards in prisons:
Prisons are different from the outside world. But they’re not different enough to exclude basic human behavior: wherever there’s an opportunity to stockpile something of value, people with the means will do so. And then they’ll use that power against people who have less.
For years, prisoners used cigarettes to do this. Now that cigarettes are contraband in most correctional facilities, something else had to take their place. It could have been Q-tips or envelopes, but ramen noodles have been commoditized because inmates are hungry thanks to slashed food budgets, according to a study released Monday at the American Sociological Association’s convention.
These study results are disturbing, not only because austerity budgets threaten services provided to incarcerated people, but because the prevalence of ramen consumption behind bars is just another example of how prisons allow their wards to be poisoned.
When it comes to food, my experience serving more than six years in a maximum security prison is different from others’. I worked in food service every day for nearly five of those years, so my meals were different from the standard-issue trays.
But my time in the kitchen taught me more about correctional food provision than scholars even know. While working in prison kitchens, I learned that the diet is designed to provide between 2,100 and 3,000 calories per day even though there is no specific prison food law outlining a minimum caloric intake. No one who subsists on prison food will waste away.
But they will feel hungry, because the meals are the worst combination: high calorie and low satiety. For example, soups are thickened excessively with starch and hot cereals loaded with margarine to increase their caloric value. A half cup might provide 10% of an inmate’s daily intake, but it’s still only a half cup of soup or cereal. Even inmates who have consumed three prison meals want to supplement their daily intake with more food; it’s the reason why so many inmates (particularly women) gain weight rather than lose it. It’s also why a 25-cent package of faux pasta has risen to prominence and become coveted when it used to be low on the food chain.
Neither cigarettes nor noodles are good for health but remain the widely used currency. The usual discussion on money will just point to how these commodities are also used as currencies. But does not dwell on the negative impact of these widely used currencies in the prisons.