Ramen Now Most Valuable Form of Currency in U.S. State Prisons

San Quentin prison inmate
An inmate at San Quentin State Prison's death row, San Quentin, California, August 15. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ramen noodles have replaced tobacco as the most popular form of currency among U.S. state prisoners, according to a study published on Monday. Even in prisons where cigarettes have been banned, inmates value the wheat noodles more than the once preferred items like stamps or envelopes.

The foodstuff is often served with meat or fish broth or soy sauce. "Because it [ramen] is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods," said the author of the study, Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona's school of sociology.

Instant noodles are exchanged for toiletries, laundry services and clothing. They are even sometimes used as bargaining chips in gambling when inmates play card games.

Gibson-Light conducted his investigation into the lives of inmates in a male state prison in the U.S. Sunbelt—the region stretching roughly from California to Florida across the southern states—over the course of a year from May 2015 to May 2016. He interviewed nearly 60 inmates and prison staff members.

He believes instant noodles are now a prized commodity because of spending cuts in U.S. state prisons, the lack of adequate food and the poor quality of care available to inmates. Prison services have not been able to keep up with the rising U.S. state prison population, which jumped by 343 percent between 1980 and 2013.

"The form of money is not something that changes often or easily, even in the prison underground economy; it takes a major issue or shock to initiate such a change," said Gibson-Light. "The use of cigarettes as money in U.S. prisons happened in American Civil War military prisons and likely far earlier. The fact that this practice has suddenly changed has potentially serious implications."

"I've seen fights over ramen," one inmate said. "People get killed over soup."

The study calls for more research into how dramatic cost-cutting measures across U.S. state prisons have impacted on inmates' quality of life.