This Food Has Displaced Cigarettes as Currency in Prison
Carbs, not carcinogens.
Ramen is a hot commodity in prisons around the country—and it has nothing to do with Kylie Jenner. According to research conducted by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona who interviewed more than 60 prisoners and has studied prisons nationwide, instant noodles have surpassed cigarettes as the most valuable commodity in incarcerated populations in the United States.
"[Ramen] is easy to get and it's high in calories," Gibson-Light told the Guardian. "A lot of them, they spend their days working and exercising and they don't have enough energy to do these things. From there it became more a story, why ramen in particular."
This shift from carcinogens to carbs in American prisons probably won't come as a surprise to anyone who's been following the ongoing debate over utilizing food as punishment in our criminal justice system. And while some prisoners subsist for years on end consuming bland or processed food products, other states have augmented their prison food programs to include inmate-farmed vegetable gardens that are not only a nutritious "cost-effective food source" that "are seen as a way to save money on healthcare for prisoners struggling with diabetes, hypertension, and other ailments," but are also breakthrough socialization and skill-building opportunities for inmates.
Still, it's clear from the rise in instant ramen's trading value over the years that the food situation in many prisons has reached dire circumstances—often due to budget cuts and growing populations. According to Gibson-Light's research, at one state prison, two packs of 59 cent ramen could be traded for a $10 sweatshirt (!), one pack of ramen could buy five cigarettes. "One way or another, everything in prison is about money," one inmate told him. "Soup is money in here. It's sad but true."
"I've seen fights over ramen," another prisoner told Gibson-Light. "People get killed over soup."