What It Means
According to the study, this cultural shift represents a “punitive frugality,” meaning that prisoners are bearing the brunt of prison cuts, largely being left to fend for themselves. Gibson-Light explained that this trend isn’t specific to prisons and can be observed in institutions across the country.
The punitive frugality puts more strain on inmates and what the study refers to as their “support systems” by forcing them to cope with worsening conditions any way possible. In the situation at hand, it places more value on food products available at the prison commissary. Ramen, which has gone up in prices in prison, bears an especially heavy weight in the prison economy: Worth $0.59 at the commissary in the study, packs of ramen could be exchanged for a set of thermal underwear worth $11.30.
“It’s ’cause people are hungry,” said one inmate. “You can tell how good a man’s doing by how many soups he’s got in his locker.”
What It Represents
“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,” he said.
Gibson-Light called for a deeper study of prison food services, and what implications the decline in support could mean for the quality of care for prisoners.
“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.”
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