So long, tobacco: There's a new most-prized currency in America's prisons, at least according to a University of Arizona PhD candidate in sociology: ramen. Michael Gibson-Light's new study is the culmination of a year's worth of interviews with about 60 inmates at an unnamed "male state prison in the US Sunbelt," per a press release. The upshot: Where cigarettes were once king, "soup is money in here," as one convict says. But the reason behind the shift is essentially hunger. Gibson-Light explains that in the early 2000s, a new vendor began supplying the food to the prison he studied in a bid to cut costs. He was told the price per meal was slashed from $2 to $1.25 as a result—and both quality and quantity took a hit. Specifically, three hot meals a day were no more.
Weekday lunches are now cold, and on the weekends only two meals are served; all portion sizes were shrunk. With inmates working and exercising throughout the day, calories—and edible ones at that—became precious. The Guardian reports an ominous anecdote from Gibson-Light: Corrections officers suggested he not eat the prison food, so as to avoid any potential food poisoning. The most popular forms of currency don't change "unless there’s some drastic change to the value in people using it," says Gibson-Light, which signals to him how much food services has degraded. In terms of value, at the prison studied, ramen cost 59 cents a pack but was worth a lot more. One telling example: Five hand-rolled cigarettes, worth $2, can be bought for just one package of ramen. (The Justice Department, meanwhile, is phasing out privately run prisons.)