Ramen is a recent culinary trend in hip neighborhoods all over the U.S. and we just can't seem to get enough of those curly, delicious noodles. But there's one place where ramen's surge in popularity has been a little bit unexpected. And that place is prison.
It's no secret that certain items are extremely valuable in prison for bartering purposes. Cigarettes are gold, historically. But according to Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona School of Sociology, instant ramen packets are creeping up the prison currency scale for a very interesting reason. Gibson-Light's study was based on personal accounts of over 60 inmates over the course of a year in an unnamed state prison in the United States.
He found that while we all know prison food is bad, in recent years it's gotten notably worse. Inmates are complaining that they're not getting enough to eat, and, additionally, the quality of the food is diminishing.
Gibson-Light told NPR, "Inmates shared countless grievances about serving sizes as well as the quality, taste or healthiness of the food. It was common for some to compare their meals to those that they received during previous prison stays, sometimes years or decades prior, which they claimed contained more and better food."
It's become so in demand that it's the most sought-after product in prison, even more than cigarettes. Gibson-Light saw that six packets of ramen, which would cost $0.59 at the commissary, could be traded for a pair of thermal underwear, which is worth $11.30.
Some inmates refer to packets of ramen as "soups," and they say you can tell how well a prisoner is doing by how many "soups" he has. One inmate told Gibson-Light, "You can tell how good a man's doing [financially] by how many soups he's got in his locker. Twenty soups? Oh, that guy's doing good."
One former prisoner, Gustavo "Goose" Alvarez, who spent more than a decade in prison, co-authored a book published in 2015 called Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories From Behind Bars. Alvarez told NPR that ramen is "everybody's staple in prison: No matter who you are, you're cooking with ramen."
He continued, "In most cases, if you're lucky enough to know somebody that works in the kitchen, they can bring you back some raw onions, maybe some chives, some jalapenos, fresh vegetables. And then there's times when you don't have much but tap water, a bag of Cheetos — Flamin' Hot Cheetos at that — and a couple of soups. And you know what? You make a little tamale."
In reality, the reliance of inmates on ramen and its growing importance in the underground prison economy is a symptom of a much more serious problem with the United States prison system. According to Gibson-Light, the prison he studied had cut its meal service. Instead of three hot meals a day, inmates only got two. One inmate told him, "There's so many people in prison now that [the prison] can't afford to feed all these people. They're following the [calorie] guidelines, but they're right on the line of that."