Scholarly Study Looks at Prison Popularity of Ramen Noodles

By Christopher Zoukis

Recent research from the University of Arizona examines why ramen, the tightly curled instant noodles accompanied by a small package of tangy, high-sodium flavorings that has long been a staple of hungry college students, has become so popular in U.S. prisons.

The study, done by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in sociology, finds the most important reasons have little or nothing to do with the most commonly noted advantages of ramen – its relatively high caloric value, delicious flavor, cheap price, durability, or ease to prepare – but instead with chronic underfunding of food services at private-run prisons and ramen’s usefulness as a form of underground currency.

The study was done for Gibson-Light’s doctoral dissertation, which will explore the form and function of inmate labor in institutions of incarceration. As part of that broader topic, the sociologist – who identifies his main professional interests as the sociology of work, occupations, and culture, and critical criminology -- has been looking into shifts in monetary practices in inmates’ informal economies.

For his research, Gibson-Light spent a year interviewing almost 60 inmates and correctional staff in a males-only prison in an unnamed Sunbelt state, and also observed inmates during their work assignments. The sociologist presented his paper on ramen’s prison popularity at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in late August in Seattle.

According to a release from the ASA, Gibson-Light’s research shows that ramen is replacing cigarettes as the leading form of underground currency, and not just due to prison systems’ growing restrictions or bans on tobacco products. (Even where tobacco remains freely available, ramen is gaining on it, and on other forms of informal currency, such as stamps and envelopes.)

Instead, the researcher attributes inmates’ increasing demand for ramen to private prisons’ cost-cutting on meals; as a result of lesser amounts and lower-quality meals, inmates increasingly turn to commissary supplies of ramen, or “soup” as it is known in prison lingo.

Due to what he terms "punitive frugality," by which Gibson-Light means a trend towards tighter food budgets and prison operators’ belief that inmates can assume some of the cost and burden of obtaining their meals, inmates’ practices are changing in response.

An example he observed in the prison he studied was a change made about 10 years ago in the food preparation service at the prison. As a cost-cutting measure, the new service offered two hot meals and a cold lunch on weekdays instead of the three hot meals the former service provided, and on weekends provided just two hot meals. Gibson-Light’s report also noted corrections spending has since 1982 failed to grow as fast as prison populations.

As a result, inmates valued food more, and found ramen a convenient method of exchange and way to store value. Even though ramen at the prison commissary Gibson-Light studied was sold for about twice its price at many other facilities (59 cents per package, compared with 25 to 30 cents in many other places), its value grew even faster than did most other available commodities. He found inmates using gambling with ramen packages used as poker chips, exchanging $11 sweatshirts for two ramen packs, or providing daily bunk cleaning service for one ramen pack per week.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com