Use Your Noodle
We’ve all seen it: Prison movies where tobacco is as good as gold among inmates. And in the past, it wasn’t far from fact.
While smoking and tobacco possession was banned in US prisons through various legislation in 2006 and 2014, contraband and homemade cigarettes were still available in prisons across the country and still maintained their buying, selling, and bartering power as always.
But now there’s a new currency in town.
Ramen and other instant noodles are becoming as good as gold, according to a new study, but sadly, it has less to do with the legality or health risks of tobacco and more to do with poor living and eating conditions behind bars.
You are what you eat.
Conducted by University of Arizona doctoral candidate Michael Gibson-Light, the study took place at an unnamed prison somewhere in the American Sun Belt and relied on the testimonies of some 60 prisoners over the course of a year.
At this specific prison, purchase and possession of tobacco products is still allowed, and only two men who participated in the study identified themselves as being smoke-free.
Interestingly, Gibson-Light’s research picked up on a disturbing trend that showed food now holds more worth in some prisons than tobacco products or other items traditionally considered to be “luxuries.” Even hygiene products, stamps, and envelopes are falling by the wayside.
In fact, they’re all being replaced by ramen. As one inmate defined it, “Prison is like the streets. You use currency for everything. In here, it’s soups.”
The Reason Why
“Throughout the nation, we can observe prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting as well as changes in the informal economic practices of inmates,” Gibson-Light says about his study. “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.”
Sadly, the US prison population has grown some 343% since 1980, and resources have not been able to keep up. Many prisons now rely on private contractors for food, or cut down prisoners to two hot meals a day.
“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. “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. Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods.”