But ramen’s value is more about worsening food options in prison than a decrease in the demand for cigarettes, according to a study published Monday by a researcher from the University of Arizona.
The declining quality of food served in the clink is a “punitive frugality” that shifts the burden and cost of care from prison systems onto prisoners and their support networks, the study says.
“Punitive frugality is not a formal prison policy, but rather an observable trend in prison administration practice in institutions throughout the country,” study author Michael Gibson-Light 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.”
Gibson-Light is presenting his findings at the 111th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
His research is part of a larger project investigating the lives of inmate laborers at an unidentified male state prison in the U.S. Sunbelt.
Gibson-Light interviewed nearly 60 inmates and prison staff members, and observed prisoners at work. He then began to study the monetary practices among inmates and how they adjusted to poor food options and other declining services.
Prison staff members and inmates provided context for the history of changes in prison food, which correlated to a steady decline in quality and quantity over the past few decades.
“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,” Gibson-Light 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 U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported that states spent roughly $48.5 billion on corrections in 2010, a 5.6 percent decline compared with 2009. Dating back to 1982, per capita state corrections expenditures have not kept pace with increasing prison populations.
The value of ramen in U.S. prisons is not necessarily surprising or new, however: there’s a cookbook called “Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars,” which includes an egg-ramen salad sandwich created by Shia LaBeouf during his brief jail stint in 2014.
Ramen’s value on the inside is also surpassing other food items, hygiene products, and even services such as bunk cleaning and laundry.
While Gibson-Light’s study only involved one prison, he says other investigations show the same trend of inmates favoring ramen over cigarettes for trading even in prisons that have not banned tobacco use.
Due to the scope of these changes, Gibson-Light is calling for a deeper study of prison food services, and what an overall 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 prison and likely far earlier. The fact that this practice has suddenly changed has potentially serious implications.”
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