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Ramen Supplants Cigarettes as US Prison Currency

A new study suggests instant ramen has replaced cigarettes as currency among prisoners.

Cigarettes, long the unofficial currency of prisons, has given way to a new kind of underground money.

A study suggests that Ramen noodles are now the most common bartering tool among U.S. prisoners.

One big reason, according to the study by the University of Arizona School of Sociology, is that smoking has been banned from many spaces within prisons.

However, there’s another driver, researchers say, and that is less food is available to prisoners, something the researchers call “punitive frugality,” as “the burden and cost of care is shifting away from prison systems and onto prisoners.”

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

Citing U.S. Bureau of Prisons data, researchers say states spent $48.5 billion on corrections in 2010, a nearly six percent drop from the year before. They also said that since 1982, spending on prisons has not kept pace with the rising number of inmates.

For the research, Gibson-Light interviewed 60 inmates over a 12-month period from May 2015 to May of 2016.

"Prison staff members as well as members of the inmate population provided narratives of the history of changes in prison food -- the past few decades have seen steady decreases in the quality and quantity of inmate food," 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."

The other goods prisoners trade Ramen for include clothing, personal hygiene products and even services like doing laundry or having their cells cleaned. Ramen was also used in gambling for card games and wagering on sporting events.

"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," Gibson-Light said. "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."