Inmates using ramen as currency: Why is this a bad thing?

Instant ramen noodles have replaced tobacco as a form of currency in many prisons, as prisons cut costs through cutting calories. 

A death row inmate looks out of his cell in the North Condemned Unit at Pontiac Correctional Institution in Illinois, Jan. 2003. Because of poor food in the country's prison systems, inmates are trading ramen.

Inmates trade it for sweatshirts, toothpaste, and cleaning services. They gamble with it. They even fight over it.

Instant ramen, the tasty, cheap, and everlasting noodle packet, has replaced tobacco as the most popular form of currency in many US prisons, according to a study soon-to-be published through the American Sociological Association.

It may look like a sign of progress, but Michael Gibson-Light, the study’s author and an ethnographer and doctoral student at the University of Arizona, warns this black market of Momofuku Ando’s fabled noodles is a sign of the lack of essential services provided to inmates as prisons have sought to reduce budget deficits.

“Prisons are, by definition, sites of deprivation which remove offenders from the norms and experiences of the outside world,” writes Mr. Gibson-Light. “However, in the era of mass incarceration and the neoliberal state, the prison system has increasingly expanded this deprivation by cutting services and programs, or by shifting costs to the imprisoned.”

“This change in prison monetary practices reflects the changing needs of inmates: nonessential luxury goods like tobacco (inmate wants) have been surpassed by essential forms of sustenance (inmate needs),” he writes.  

For a year starting in May 2015, Gibson-Light interviewed 60 male inmates and staff at an unidentified state-run correctional facility somewhere in the Sun Belt. These interviews were part of Gibson-Light’s larger investigation into the lives of inmates at the facility. The “punitive frugality” he observed – in which cost-cutting measures that reduced the quality and quantity of prison meals served as punishment – led him to analyze this currency of ramen.

“It’s ‘cause people are hungry,” an unidentified inmate told Gibson-Light, referring to ramen packets as “soup.” “You can tell how good a man’s doing [financially] by how many soups he’s got in his locker. ‘20 soups? Oh, that guy’s doing good!’ [...] People will pay more for an envelope when they need to write home to get more soups!”

Inmates could buy ramen packets at the facility’s commissary for $0.59 per pack, according to the study. The nonperishable noodles are a popular form of currency at other prisons, notes Gibson-Light. In fact, Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, who served a decade for a weapons charge, co-authored a book of recipes titled “Prison Ramen: Recipes And Stories From Behind Bars.”

Prison menus have long prioritized utilitarianism. Meals should be the perfect blend of price, calories, satiety, and mediocrity, as Drew Harwell wrote for the Tampa Bay Times in 2010:  

The portions are reasonable, the nutritional content adequate, the taste ordinary, the presentation dull, the blandness as inescapable as the facilities themselves. The meals are made to guarantee very little except survival.

But lawmakers’ attempts to lower budget deficits have reduced the quality and quantity of prison meals. In 2003, for instance, several states including Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia cut the number of calories and meals their prisons serve in an effort to cut costs, according to The New York Times. Other states including Massachusetts were considering following suit.

Overall, states spent 5.6 percent less on prison systems in 2010 than the year before, according to the US Bureau of Prisons. And since 1982, per capita state corrections expenditures have not kept pace with the number of inmates, Gibson-Light found.

All of this has added up to less food for inmates. The Marshall Project, a news organization that covers the criminal justice system, found that some facilities have reduced the cost of their meals to $0.15 a day, reducing the number of meals, as well as inmates’ waistlines.

Ramen hasn’t been the only food valued in prison. Honey buns, the puffy, sugary Swedish pastry, has been used as ingredients for hooch wine, currency for tobacco, and even involved in a massive tax fraud, when prison inmates offered them to overnight drunk tank occupants in exchange for their Social Security numbers, according to The Tampa Bay Times. Yet, while these puffy treats have supplemented bland menu items like Nutraloaf, ramen has almost become a necessity, argues Gibson-Light. It has even sparked fights.  

Where a lack of good food in prison can lead to violence, it can also bring people together. Mr. Alvarez said he was inspired to write the cookbook after he and other Hispanic prisoners broke ramen with black prisoners during a riot at the California Institute for Men in Chino in 2009. 

"We became close ... through this meal. It was kind of like a bridge," writes Alvarez.

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