Food & Drink

Your Favorite Dorm Room Staple Is Now the Most Valuable Currency in Prison

Ramen Noodles
Barnaby Chambers/Shutterstock

I admit that my knowledge of prison economics rests squarely on Shawshank Redemption marathons on TNT, but even I know that cigarettes are used as currency in the clink (people still call it "the clink," right?). But just as inflation has driven up the dollar on the outside, the prison economy has shifted considerably in recent years: tobacco has taken a backseat to the almighty ramen. 

According to new research first reported by Guardian USinstant soup (especially the ramen variety) is now a more valuable bartering tool than tobacco products like cigarettes and dip, at least at the one anonymous prison that was studied. As one of the 60+ current prisoners surveyed in the report put it, "Soup is money in here. It’s sad but true.”

The researcher behind the claim, University of Arizona’s school of sociology doctoral candidate Michael Gibson-Light, asserts that the rising demand in ramen correlates with the decline in the quantity and quality of prison food.

For reference, five cigs or one sweatshirt can be bought for one pack of ramen, which is worth roughly $5 in prison terms. Inmates will also use packs of ramen to buy fresh veggies stolen from prison kitchens.

But this research isn't entirely breaking new ground, as the phenomenon already has its own decidedly passionate subculture. Ex-con Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez's 2015  book Prison Ramen is entirely dedicated to ramen behind bars, featuring former and current prisoners' anecdotes and recipes -- like "Ramen Goulash," and "Ramen Nuggets" -- as well as entries from celebrities like Slash and Shia LaBeouf (who are pretty much always on the verge of being arrested, themselves). 

Overall, it's a bleak reality for sure. Prisoners are so underfed that ramen noodles, the lowest, most wan option on the college food pyramid, are more highly valued than cigarettes, which are literally addictive.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He's never been incarcerated, but he has been arrested. Follow him @wilfulton.