Ramen noodles: The unexpected gold standard in prison currency

Ramen noodles have become the most valuable "currency" among U.S. prisoners – overtaking the more traditional cigarettes, stamps and envelopes – a study reveals.

The rise in value of instant noodles was deemed a result of "punitive frugality" by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona who was behind the investigation, published Monday. He blamed budget cuts for bringing about a decline in prison food standards.

"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."

According to Gibson-Light, budget cuts in U.S. prisons have meant that greater responsibility has fallen to inmates to find better ways of feeding themselves, rather than this being the duty of prison authorities.

Other goods which serve as alternative forms of currency include other foodstuffs, clothing, hygiene products and even services, such as cleaning another inmate's bunk or doing their laundry. Ramen noodles are also used as gambling chips.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has recorded state spending on corrections at roughly $48.5 billion in 2010, a 5.6 percent decline on the previous year, said the report. Since 1982, state correction spending per capita has not kept up with the number of inmates, it added.

Bowl of ramen noodles
Getty Images

From May 2015 to May this year, Gibson-Light interviewed just under 60 inmates and prison staff members, and also observed prisoners working.

Though Gibson-Light's field of inquiry so far has only related to his study at a single prison, he refers to other studies that indicate that the trend is happening elsewhere. He said that the ramen currency had been noted in prisons regardless as to whether or not tobacco was forbidden, and that it transcended prisoner security levels, cliques and racial groups.

"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 warned.

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