Ramen noodles ‘overtaking tobacco’ as US prison currency

High-calorie snack in high demand amid ‘dire nutritional standards’ at facilities

Ramen noodles are overtaking tobacco as the most popular currency in US prisons, according a new study released on Monday.

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.

“(Ramen) is easy to get and it’s high in calories,” Gibson-Light said. “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.”

Gibson-Light interviewed close to 60 inmates over the course of a year at one state prison as part of a wider study on prison labour. He did not identify the prison to protect the confidentiality of the inmates.


He found that the instant soup has surpassed tobacco as the most prized currency at the prison. He also analysed other nationwide investigations that he says found a trend towards using ramen noodles in exchanges.

“One way or another, everything in prison is about money,” one soft-spoken prisoner named Rogers said in the report. “Soup is money in here. It’s sad but true.”

Ramen noodles have long been known to be a popular dish in prisons. Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, who spent more than a decade incarcerated on a weapons charge, wrote a book on its popularity, Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories From Behind Bars.

He was inspired to write the book after a race riot in 2009 led to a standoff between a group of Hispanic and African American inmates. An older inmate quelled the dispute and the two groups resolved the tensions by cooking a feast together, largely with ramen noodles.

Bleak picture

The book, released last year, includes several recipes such as Ramen Tamale, using Doritos, canned pork and beans, and ramen. It recommends mixing strawberry jelly with soy sauce to make teriyaki, to go with Cheesy Meat Tacos. The book also includes the favourite ramen recipes of celebrities such as Shia LeBeouf and Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.

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 in question 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 provides an additional hit.

“I save all my meals to eat at once so I can actually get full,” a prisoner named “DS” said.

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”.

The lack of food and the poor quality have contributed to ramen’s popularity. Gibson-Light found that even at prisons where tobacco has been banned or other items were more popular to trade– such as stamps and envelopes – there has been a shift towards food.

Exchange rate

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.

It can get dangerous when ramen is purchased at illegal inmate stores, as customers often purchase items on credit. Failure to pay back debts can result in fights or worse.

“I’ve seen fights over ramen,” one inmate said. “People get killed over soup.”

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.

Guardian Service