Instant ramen pot noodles are replacing tobacco as currency among prisoners in the United States.
That is the finding of a study of inmates which was primarily about the work done in prisons, but which also made the surprise discovery that noodles have become a valuable commodity behind bars.
The one-year-long study at an unnamed male state jail was conducted by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona’s school of sociology.
He concluded that it is not because cigarettes and tobacco products have been banned, but rather cost cuts mean the food available in correctional facilities has declined in quality and quantity, something Gibson-Light calls “punitive frugality”.
The ramen pot noodles, which can be bought by inmates in prison shops, have become popular as a means of barter for goods and services, such as items of clothing or cell cleaning. They are also used as stakes for gambling.
Cheap, durable food
“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,” the researcher told Phys.org.
He went on: “Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods.”
Although he questioned only 60 inmates and guards at one prison, Gibson-Light said other investigations had found the same thing happening elsewhere.
“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.”
In his report the sociologist says the US Bureau of Prisons (BoP) calculated that states spent about $48.5 billion on corrections in 2010. That was 5.6 percent less than in 2009.
The BoP recorded that from 1982 per capita spending by state corrections facilities has not kept pace with the number of inmates.
The study is entitled ‘Must Work for Food: The Politics of Nutrition and Informal Economy in an American Prison’. It was presented on August 22 at the American Sociological Association’s 111th Annual Meeting held in Seattle.
First make your pot
There has even been a cookbook co-written by a former prisoner about the importance of instant pot ramen noodles in that world. It also includes a selection of recipes from celebrities adding their variations on the original ingredients.
Gustavo ‘Goose’ Alvarez knows his subject having spent over 10 year locked up before writing ‘Prison Ramen: Recipes And Stories From Behind Bars’.
In the book he described how prisoners create illegal means of heating water and makeshift cooking pots. In the book he also details how on one occasion sharing noodles headed off a race riot in a California prison.