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‘They’ll kill for it’: Ramen has become the black-market currency in American prisons

According to a new study by Michael Gibson-Light, ramen packs are becoming the top underground currency in American prisons. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Dani Johnson/The Washington Post, Photo: vitalssss/The Washington Post)

Instant ramen is delicious, easy to cook, ludicrously cheap and surprisingly nonperishable.

For all those reasons and more, the noodles are overtaking tobacco as the preferred underground currency that inmates use in prisons, according to a new study by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona School of Sociology.

"Prisoners are so unhappy with the quality and quantity of prison food that they receive that they have begun relying on ramen noodles — a cheap, durable food product — as a form of money in the underground economy," Gibson-Light said in a news release Monday. "Because it is cheap, tasty and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods."

Over a year, Gibson-Light interviewed 60 male inmates and staff members in an unidentified state-run facility as part of a larger investigation into how prisoners were responding to declining prison services. He labeled what he found "punitive frugality" — that is, as corrections budgets shrink, the cost of care is shifting onto prisoners and their support networks.

Enter the humble ramen brick.

Inmates often used instant ramen packs to barter for other food items, clothes, hygiene products and even services, Gibson-Light observed. At times, he said, he saw prisoners put down ramen packs, or "soups," as literal bargaining chips during card games. According to the study, one inmate put it succinctly: "Soup is money in here."

Gibson-Light said he noted that the move away from a "luxury" currency such as cigarettes occurred even though the prison had not banned smoking or tobacco products. Rather, he wrote that inmates told him they were receiving food deemed "inedible or too little to sustain them for a day."

He noted that the inmates at the prison in question used to receive three hot meals a day, but in the early 2000s, the second meal was changed to a cold sandwich and a small bag of chips. Weekend lunches were eliminated; overall, portion sizes for every meal were reduced, he said.

"It’s 'cause people are hungry. You can tell how good a man’s doing [financially] by how many soups he’s got in his locker. 'Twenty soups? Oh, that guy’s doing good!'" one inmate told Gibson-Light, according to the study. "People will pay more for an envelope when they need to write home to get more soups! Prison is like the streets. You use currency for everything. In here, it’s soups."

Although he was surprised to discover the "prison ramen black market," Gibson-Light said the shift points to a growing concern about per capita corrections expenditures that have not kept pace with the number of inmates. He cited figures from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that showed states spent about $48.5 billion on corrections in 2010, a 5.6 percent decrease from 2009.

Gibson-Light is presenting his research at the American Sociological Association's annual conference in Seattle this week, according to a university spokesman.

The ramen study should not be a surprise to anyone who has spent time in prison, said Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, co-author of "Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars."

His book, published in November, recounts his experiences in prison over two separate sentences, one in the mid-'90s and another from 2006 to 2013. He quickly learned how critical ramen was to the inmate economy, and over the years he devised ways to jazz up the instant noodles.

"It’s gold. It’s literally gold," Alvarez told The Washington Post. "People will actually — and I hate to say this but — they’ll kill for it, believe it or not."

Momofuku Ando: Inventor of instant ramen artfully saluted with Google Noodle Doodle

Alvarez said he never ate ramen before incarceration but quickly discovered that the cheap bricks were a no-brainer purchase at the prison commissary if he wanted to stretch his account.

"It got to the point where some people would rather have a decent meal than a stogie, especially the way they're feeding us in prison," Alvarez said. "Times have changed to cut a buck."

Ramen was the staple for just about every meal he cooked on his own, he said. And without access to boiling water or a cooktop, he had to get creative, using tap water or eating a brick of noodles like a piece of toast.

"You would have to sit there [at the tap] and physically push the button for an hour to get it lukewarm," Alvarez said. Then he would carefully pull open the top of the packaging, take out the seasoning packet and drop warm water into the pouch, softening the noodles "enough for it to be edible." He would put that on a slice of bread with some mayonnaise and a piece of cheese.

"I called that a ramen-wich," he said.

Alvarez also remembers eating them dry, spread with peanut butter and jelly or a handful of raisins sprinkled on top.

"I would eat them before a handball tournament or a workout," he said. "For some reason, it would give that an extra push."

And like any currency, the value of a ramen pack fluctuated.

"I remember in '92, you could get them for 20 cents a ramen," Alvarez said. "In 2013, the last time I was in prison, they were equivalent to $1 a ramen, sometimes $2."

Invented in 1958 by Taiwanese Japanese entrepreneur Momofuku Ando, instant ramen soon exploded in popularity worldwide and is now a multibillion-dollar industry. Ramen is notably embraced by cash-strapped college students and, in recent years, by a host of chefs wanting to put their own spin on the ubiquitous noodles.

In Japan, ramen aficionados fear for their favorite dish

Alvarez lives in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, where he is working on a screenplay for a movie about prison life. Contrary to many people's assumptions, he says, he is not sick of ramen at all, despite having eating it so frequently. In fact, now that he has a full kitchen — not to mention boiling water — he has expanded his ramen repertoire. His latest improvisation is an oyster ramen dish that is "basically some chopped onions, smoked oysters, cilantro, a dab of mayonnaise and hot sauce" served atop the instant noodles.

His pantry is full of packs of Maruchan, still his go-to brand — "You can’t duplicate it. I don't know what it is they put in there" — and he stocks up at his local Walmart, less than a mile away.

There is only one thing he is still adjusting to now that he's on the outside.

"There’s no shortage of ramen," he said. "You know what I find, though? It’s more expensive out here than in prison."

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