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According to a new study, a much tastier item has replaced tobacco as the most popular currency among American inmates. But the reason is far from palatable. Trading well above its real-world value, ramen is now the most coveted item in prisons as a result of mediocre food quality in privately run institutions, The Guardian reports.


Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona’s school of sociology, wrote the report released on Monday, detailing how prison currencies can reveal the inhumane conditions happening within them. In the report, Gibson-Light explained that ramen is “easy to get” and “high in calories,” meaning for those inmates who spend their days working or exercising, this is the most appetizing option when the free food provided doesn’t meet basic nutritional needs.

The fact that inmates are turning to ramen as the only viable source of sustenance should be alarming no matter which way you look at it. After interviewing nearly 60 inmates and analyzing nationwide surveys, Gibson-Light found that food became a valuable black market commodity after state prisons handed off food preparation to private firms in the 2000s. Gibson-Light describes this change in his report, writing, “That change was part of a cost-cutting measure. With that change that resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the food the inmates were receiving.”

And as Chandra Bozelko pointed out in a separate article for The Guardian, prison food might meet standard caloric requirements, but the calories are packed into small portions that don’t leave inmates feeling satiated. And that seems to be the best-case scenario. At the far end of the spectrum, a lawsuit exposed Rikers Island for serving food contaminated with rat poison.

In that sense, ramen replacing cigarettes as the new standard currency is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problem of food in prisons. Hopefully, the US Justice Department’s decision to phase out private prisons will improve the living conditions for inmates, because whether they broke the law or not, prisoners are humans above all.

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