Though tobacco has long existed as the unofficial currency inside US prisons, there's a new item that inmates are bartering with behind bars: Top Ramen. The sodium-packed, freeze-dried noodles have been a favorite of college students and reality TV stars alike for years, but the current shift inside penitentiaries has little to do with flavor, instead shining a light on the shocking lack of food prisoners receive while serving time.
A new study from Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona, reveals how cost-cutting measures have left many inmates ravenously hungry and willing to forgo tobacco for a hot meal.
According to the report—which polled 60 prisoners at an unidentified state prison over the course of a year—incarcerated men went from getting three hot meals a day, to just two hot meals and one cold meal every 24 hours. On weekends, inmates are forced to live on just two meals a day—and the portions are hardly enough to live on.
"I save all my meals to eat at once so I can actually get full,” one prisoner named D told Gibson-Light.
The study, which was released Monday, traces the origin of the crisis back to 2000, when a new private firm took over food preparation inside US prisons, ultimately offering less food to inmates as a cost-cutting technique. As a result, “black-market food” thrived.
Gibson-Light details in his report how correction officers warned him against eating prison food because it might give him food poisoning. One officer even recounted a time when he saw a box of chicken in the kitchen that was labeled "not for human consumption."
As a result, many prisoners have turned to ramen to supplement their substandard diets.
“[Ramen] is easy to get and it’s high in calories," Gibson-Light explained. "A lot of them, they spend their days working and exercising and they don’t have enough energy to do these things. From there it became more a story, why ramen in particular."
Sold at about $.59 a pack at prison commissaries, ramen now equals big money. Gibson-Light found that two packs of ramen could purchase a sweatshirt (worth over $10), while one pack of ramen equaled five cigarettes (worth $2).
"One way or another, everything in prison is about money," a prisoner named Rogers said in the study. “Soup is money in here. It’s sad but true.” Other inmates claim that people have been beaten and killed over packets of soup.
Though the injustices born out of America’s prison industrial complex remain shocking—even after the Justice Department announced its plans to end the use of private prisons—ramen's enduring popularity inside jails comes as little surprise. Last year, Lil Wayne's favorite prison recipe involved mixing dry ramen with Doritos to make a "Ramen Tamale."
"That's everybody's staple in prison,” Gustavo Alvarez, the author Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories From Behind Bars, told NPR in 2015. “No matter who you are, you're cooking with ramen.”