“I save all my meals to eat at once so I can actually get full”
Ramen noodles are overtaking tobacco as the most popular currency in US prisons, according a new report by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona’s school of sociology, found the decline in quality and quantity of food available in prisons due to cost-cutting has made ramen noodles a valuable commodity.
The study paints a bleak picture of the state of food available at the prison. Gibson-Light found that black-market food became more valuable after control over food preparation switched from one private firm to another in the early 2000s. “That change was part of a cost-cutting measure,” Gibson-Light said. “With that change that resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the food the inmates were receiving.” Inmates at the prison Gibson-Light studied went from receiving three hot meals a day to two hot meals and one cold lunch during the week, and only two meals for the whole day on the weekend. The phenomenon is described by Gibson-Light as “punitive frugality”. Spending on corrections has not kept pace with the number of inmates in prisons since 1982, the report found. Prisoners said that they did not have enough calories to see them through the day, so ramen noodles provides an additional hit.
The little food that is available is usually of extremely poor quality. Correctional officers warned Gibson-Light not to eat it, as it might result in food poisoning. One corrections officer recalled that he once examined the food in the kitchen and found a box that contained “nasty looking full chickens” that was boldly marked several times with the words “not for human consumption”.
“One way or another, everything in prison is about money,” one prisoner named Rogers said in the report. “Soup is money in here. It’s sad but true.”
Gibson-Light explained that forms of currencies only change in extreme circumstances. “Money doesn’t change unless there’s some drastic change to the value in people using it,” he said. The shift from tobacco to ramen highlights how dire the nutritional standards at prisons has become, he added.
At the prison from the study, ramen cost 59 cents at the commissary but would be exchanged for items worth more in value. For instance, a sweatshirt – worth $10.81 – can be bought for two packs of ramen. Five tailor-made cigarettes – worth $2.00 – can be bought for one pack of ramen. Acquiring fresh vegetables to cook with was extremely highly regarded, Gibson-Light said. Inmates would use ramen to buy onions or zucchinis stolen from the kitchen. Others cleaned inmates’ bunks for one pack of ramen – referred to as soup – a week, or did laundry or gambled with it.
“I’ve seen fights over ramen,” one inmate said. “People get killed over soup.”