It may be surprising to some, but food is quickly taking over tobacco as the number one method of currency and exchange in American prisons. What kind of food could be so valuable, you ask? No, it's not foie gras. Or steamed lobster with butter. It's ramen.

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A study by the University of Arizona's Michael Gibson-Light was conducted where he interviewed 60 inmates and staff at a state prison and found that the popularity of cigarettes and tobacco decline in proportion to the decline of the quality and quantity of food in the prison. 

According to The Guardian, Ramen has become the currency of choice because it is easy to get a hold of, easy to eat, and has a lot of calories. It has come to this because of the ever-minimizing budgeting and funding of American prisons, often leaving inmates undernourished and hungry due to their days of strenuous physical activity. Most prisons used to serve three meals a day: now that the federal government has cut funding allocated toward prisons, inmates only receive two. And what do you need when your day consists of physical labor and exercise? Ramen, I guess.

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As mentioned by NPR, an informal economy centered around ramen is depicted in the jail life for many around the country. Prisoners often use ramen to hire other prisoners to clean their stalls, do their laundry, or anything else they can get someone else to do for them. Ramen even has its own nickname, called "soups" in jails. One inmate told NPR, "You can tell how good a man's doing by how many soups he's got in his locker. 'Twenty soups? Oh, that guy's doing good!'"

Ramen has also reached such a height of popularity because prison food just tastes terrible. It's not like executive chefs bring out four-course meals, and it's undoubtedly even worse that school cafeterias and dining halls. In a place where good food, or even food in general, is hard to come by, ramen ranks pretty high up there in terms of importance.

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But why does ramen, such a seemingly simple household staple, hold so much value in a prison environment? Let's go back to the reason why ramen is important to begin with: prisons are severely underfunded and have to compensate for a lack of monetary resources by reducing the quantity and quality of food served to inmates. If prisons were adequately cared for and not shoved to the wayside, prisoners wouldn't have to worry about food, and thus, would not have to deem ramen a godly, surreal value.

It has much to do with what Gibson-Light calls "punitive frugality," noting how prisons are not adequately funded in proportion to the increase of inmates they receive – as more prisoners enter the system, the prison doesn't get paid anymore to house and care for them.

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The New York Times finds that it costs on average of $60,000 to house one inmate per year. Depending on where the prison is located, the cost can range from $30,000 to $168,000. This cost is not being considered when the state or federal government decides how much to allocate to correction facilities – which is why we can see an increase in the demand for unhealthy ramen.

Gibson-Light is calling for a more in-depth study of food services (or the scarcity of) in more prisons because his study only pertained to one prison. However, he has connected much of his work with environmental factors of other prisons and confidently assumes this problem is of a nationwide caliber.

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While, yes, prisoners are in prison for committing a crime (maybe they broke the law for food?), it does not mean they are not considered people. When something as trivial as ramen is so highly valued in the prison life, we need to stop and think about it for a few seconds. It is essential to spread awareness about the poor conditions of prisons and fight for an overhaul of the prison system. Although ramen is delicious, there's a problem when it is valued as a form of currency within an already corrupt system.