Ramen replacing cigarettes as prison currency, study finds

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SEATTLE (WCMH) – Prison food is apparently so bad that prisoners are now trading ramen noodles as currency.

According to a study by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, inmates are trying to figure out better ways to feed themselves as prison services get defunded.

Gibson-Light says the rise of ramen as currency signals ‘punitive frugality,’ where the burden and cost of care shifts away from prison systems and onto prisoners and their friends and family.

Gibson-Light is presenting his research at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

“Punitive frugality is not a formal prison policy, but rather an observable trend in prison administration practice in institutions throughout the country,” Gibson-Light said.

“Throughout the nation, we can observe prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting as well as changes in the informal economic practices of inmates,” he said. “Services are cut back and many costs are passed on to inmates in an effort to respond to calls to remain both tough on crime and cost effective.”

The study is based on interviews with 60 inmates and staff members in an Arizona prison.

“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.

“Prisoners are so unhappy with the quality and quantity of prison food that they receive that they have begun relying on ramen noodles — a cheap, durable food product — as a form of money in the underground economy,” he said. “Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods.”

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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