Once upon a time, cigarettes were the currency of choice when those behind bars needed to barter. But these days, America's prisoners are trading with ramen.
So says Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona School of Sociology. He spent a year interviewing nearly 60 inmates and prison staffers at one men's state prison (which he kept anonymous to protect his sources) housing thousands of inmates. He presented the findings this week at the meeting of the American Sociological Association.
"There was an entire informal economy based on ramen (which the men often referred to as "soups")," Gibson-Light tells us via email. Prisoners use it hire other inmates for services, like cleaning out their bunk or doing their laundry, or purchase goods on the black market, like fresh fruits or vegetables (which aren't sold in the commissary but are sometimes smuggled from the kitchens, he says.
"As one inmate told me: 'You can tell how good a man's doing [financially] by how many soups he's got in his locker. '20 soups? Oh, that guy's doing good!' "
So what's behind ramen's rise as a de facto prison currency? It's super cheap, super tasty, rich in calories and readily available in prison commissaries — at a time when cost-cutting at detention facilities has many inmates complaining they're not getting enough to eat.