Why Ramen Is More Popular Than Cigarettes in U.S. Prisons
Instant noodles are usually thought of as the go-to meal for broke college students. But precooked, dried packages of ramen are helping another population survive.
According to research presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, ramen—known in penitentiaries as “soups”—has replaced cigarettes as the most popular form of prison currency. Along with a pack of smokes, people who are locked up are bartering with ramen, trading packs of it in exchange for laundry services or clothing.
Michael Gibson-Light, a University of Arizona doctoral student and the lead author of an unpublished study about the issue, attributes the rise of ramen to “punitive frugality.” That’s what happens when prisons cut inmate care costs and the responsibility of paying for food and commissary items shifts to prisoners and their families.
“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,” Gibson-Light said in a statement.
Inmates involved in the study reported that the soup was worth far more than the 59-cent price tag in the prison commissary. Trading two soups could buy a prisoner a sweatshirt on the black market, while the same sweatshirt cost $10.81 in a store. A denture cream valued at $2.57 went for a single instant-noodle pack, according to Gibson-Light’s findings. Prisoners at the facility he studied worked for 10 cents to 20 cents an hour; purchasing these extra meals strained their meager finances.
“This change in prison monetary practices reflects the changing needs of inmates,” Gibson-Light wrote in the study. “Nonessential luxury goods like tobacco (inmate wants) have been surpassed by essential forms of sustenance (inmate needs).”
While punitive frugality is not an official institutional policy, it is a trend Gibson-Light and other researchers have observed occurring across the nation.
“Since prisoners are politically unpopular and they can’t even vote, they’re an ideal target for cost cutting,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, an initiative dedicated to improving inmates’ conditions and rights, told TakePart.
Previous research suggests that as correctional authorities control eating times and portions and inmates conduct hunger strikes to indicate dissatisfaction with living conditions, food has become a tool for social control. With penitentiary food becoming more inedible and inadequate, in recent years prisoners have gradually made the switch to trading for soups.
In the study, veteran inmates reported that meal portions had shrunk and quality of ingredients had declined as costs were reduced. While prisoners have the right to a healthy, balanced diet, Fathi, who has worked on several lawsuits concerning food in prisons, said that it isn’t always the case when prisons are stretching budgets to deal with an influx of prisoners.
“We’re seeing a number of states go from three meals a day to two,” Fathi said. “We’re seeing them cut corners on food in other ways. When something is scarce, it becomes valuable. As food has become scarce, I would surmise that’s why ramen noodles have taken on this new role.”
Although Gibson-Light only surveyed 50 prisoners and seven staff members at an unnamed penitentiary in the Sunbelt, other researchers mentioned in the study report that stockpiles of ramen noodles to supplement meals are cropping up across the nation. Prison cookbooks that contain recipes using meager commissary offerings prominently feature instant noodles.
Fathi believes prisons are a microcosm of hunger rates spiking in the outside world.
“It’s significant that hunger and inadequate nutrition has become so endemic in this country that food is now becoming a source of currency,” Fathi said. “The United States seems to be taking a step closer to third world countries, where prisoners’ families are expected to provide food and other necessities for them, and that’s hardly something we should be proud of.”
Correction: Aug. 24, 2016—5:29 p.m.
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of prisons Gibson-Light visited. It was one.
Correction: Aug. 25, 2016—10 a.m.
An earlier version of this article misstated the area of the U.S. Gibson-Light visited in the study. It was the Sunbelt.