Ramen noodles replacing cigarettes as US prison currency, study finds

The quality of prison food is declining as budget cuts bite 

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The Independent US

The level of care inside America’s prisons, and particularly the quality of the food, has fallen so far prisoners are using ramen noodles as their preferred form of money for buying and selling goods and other favours, a new study has found.

The emergence of ramen noodles as a sort of cell-block currency in place of cigarettes is evidence of what Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, calls the new “punitive frugality” that has taken hold in a prison system that is intent on cutting costs.

According to his study, which will be presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Seattle on Monday, packets of dried noodles are being used by inmates not only to pay for other goods behind bars - whether sweets, clothing or cosmetic items - as well as services like laundry or bunk-cleaning, but also as chips in poker games.

The study is meant in part to highlight how far the quality of services have dropped in the US prisons. It comes out just days after the US Department of Justice signaled it was going to end contracting out its prisons to private companies because of concerns that they were not being given the resources they need adequately to take care of the prison population.

Ramen noodles have apparently taken on the vaunted status of a currency in part because of their durability - they become edible food only when hot water is added - and their value as a high-calorie and more or less nutritious meal. 

That is meaningful to inmates, Mr Gibson-Light contends, because the quality of food that the prisons provide to inmates, as with other forms of care, has fallen so far. 

“Punitive frugality is not a formal prison policy, but rather an observable trend in prison administration practice in institutions throughout the country,” noted Mr Gibson-Light, who drew his conclusion after following the bartering habits of a group of 60 male inmates in one prison on the American Sunbelt.

“Throughout the nation, we can observe prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting as well as changes in the informal economic practices of inmates. 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.”

Where ramen noodles offer inmates the chance to boost the quality of their diets, cigarettes, which previously have reigned as the prison currency of choice going back to the American Civil War, never offered such health benefits.

“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,“ Mr Gibson-LIght contended. ”Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods.”

The displacement of cigarettes by dried noodles should be an alarm bell for the authorities, revealing the extent to which care in prisons has deteriorated, Mr Gibson-Light concluded.

“The form of money is not something that changes often or easily, even in the prison underground economy; it takes a major issue or shock to initiate such a change,“ he said. ”The use of cigarettes as money in U.S. prisons happened in American Civil War military prisons and likely far earlier. The fact that this practice has suddenly changed has potentially serious implications.“