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.
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.
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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.)
This article originally appeared on Newser: In America's Prisons, Ramen More Precious Than Cigarettes