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Study uncovers surprising new form of currency in US prisons


Cigarettes, pornography and drugs have traditionally been the staples of the underground economy in American prisons.

But a new study has revealed inmates are turning to another product as a form of currency.

And it’s an unusual one.

Jailhouse junk food

Instant ramen noodles have taken over as the most popular form of “money” and it’s not a response to recent bans on cigarettes in many prisons.

Rather, it’s the poor quality and quantity of the food in US prisons, according to the study’s author Michael Gibson-Light from the University of Arizona. “Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods,” he said.

ramen-heroIn the study, Gibson-Light records how a packet of ramen, which costs 59 cents at the prison’s commissary, has more value than its actual worth, with thermal clothing, retailing for $11, worth six packs of ramen or $3.54 in a trade.

However, stocking up on the noodles is not necessarily a good idea, with arguments over ramen often leading to violence. “I’ve seen fights over ramen,” Gibson-Light said, quoting one prisoner. “Who the f*** gonna fight about ramen noodles? That’s 15 cents on the outs!”

The cost of cutting costs

While his findings focused on one prison, other studies have also pointed to the noodle trend with prison cost-cutting behind the shift.

In the Washington Post, Gibson-Light said the prison he studied had changed one of its three daily hot meals in the early 2000s to a cold sandwich and a small bag of chips; got rid of weekend lunches; and cut portion sizes at every meal. Inmates told him the food was “inedible or too little to sustain them for a day.”

Interestingly, instant ramen was invented by Japanese businessman Momofuku Ando as a way of feeding its starving citizens after World War 2 who said “Peace will come to the world when all its people have enough to eat.” Case in point?

Lauren is a journalist for, agedcare101 and The Donaldson Sisters. Growing up in a big family in small town communities, she has always had a love for the written word, joining her local library at the age of six months. With over eight years' experience in writing and editing, she is a keen follower of news and current affairs with a nose for a good story.

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