How Ramen Became the Currency of Choice in Prison, Beating Out Cigarettes

The last decade ush­ered in a slew of tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese-style ramen restau­rants — enough to jus­ti­fy ramen maps to New York CityChica­go, and the Bay Area.

Yet most Amer­i­cans still con­ceive of ramen as the pack of sea­son­ing and dehy­drat­ed instant noo­dles that have long sus­tained broke artists and col­lege stu­dents.

Add incar­cer­at­ed per­sons to the list of pack­aged ramen’s most ardent con­sumers.

In the above episode of Vox’s series, The Goods, we learn how those ubiq­ui­tous cel­lo­phane pack­ages have out­stripped cig­a­rettes and postage stamps as the pre­ferred form of prison cur­ren­cy.

Ramen is durable, portable, pack­aged in stan­dard units, avail­able in the prison com­mis­sary, and high­ly prized by those with a deep need to pad their chow hall meals.

Ramen can be used to pay for cloth­ing and hygiene prod­ucts, or ser­vices like laun­dry, bunk clean­ing, dic­ta­tion, or cus­tom illus­tra­tion. Gam­blers can use it in lieu of chips.

Ramen’s sta­tus as the pre­ferred form of exchange also speaks to a sharp decline in the quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty of food in Amer­i­can penal insti­tu­tions.

Ethno­g­ra­ph­er Michael Gib­son-Light, who spent a year study­ing home­grown mon­e­tary prac­tices among incar­cer­at­ed pop­u­la­tions, notes that slashed prison bud­gets have cre­at­ed a cul­ture of “puni­tive fru­gal­i­ty.”

Called upon to mod­el a demon­stra­bly tough on crime stance and cut back on expen­di­tures, the insti­tu­tions are unof­fi­cial­ly shunt­ing many of their tra­di­tion­al costs onto the pris­on­ers them­selves.

In response, those on the inside have piv­ot­ed to edi­ble cur­ren­cy:

What we are see­ing is a col­lec­tive response — across inmate pop­u­la­tions and secu­ri­ty lev­els, across prison cliques and racial groups, and even across states — to changes and cut­backs in prison food services…The form of mon­ey is not some­thing that changes often or eas­i­ly, even in the prison under­ground econ­o­my; it takes a major issue or shock to ini­ti­ate such a change. The use of cig­a­rettes as mon­ey in U.S. pris­ons hap­pened in Amer­i­can Civ­il War mil­i­tary pris­ons and like­ly far ear­li­er. The fact that this prac­tice has sud­den­ly changed has poten­tial­ly seri­ous impli­ca­tions.

Ramen may be a rel­a­tive­ly new devel­op­ment in the prison land­scape, but culi­nary exper­i­men­ta­tion behind bars is not. From Pruno prison wine to Martha Stewart’s prison grounds crabap­ple jel­ly, it’s a noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained type of deal. Work with what you’ve got.

Gus­ta­vo “Goose” Alvarez, who appears in Vox’s video, col­lect­ed a num­ber of the most adven­tur­ous recipes in his book, Prison Ramen: Recipes and Sto­ries from Behind Bars. Any­one can bring some vari­ety on the spur of the moment by sprin­kling some of your ramen’s sea­son­ing pack­et into your drink­ing water, but amass­ing the ingre­di­ents for an ambi­tious dish like Orange Porkies — chili ramen plus white rice plus ½ bag of pork skins plus orange-fla­vored punch — takes patience and per­se­ver­ance.

Alvarez’s Egg Ramen Sal­ad Sand­wich recipe earns praise from actor Shia LeBoeuf, whose time served is both mul­ti­ple and min­i­mal.

Some­one serv­ing a longer sen­tence has a more com­pelling rea­son to search for the ramen-cen­tered sense of har­mo­ny and well­be­ing on dis­play in Tam­popo, the first “ramen west­ern”:

Appre­ci­ate its gestalt. Savor the aro­mas.

Joe Guer­rero, host of YouTube’s After­Pris­on­Show, is not immune to the plea­sures of some of his ramen-based con­coc­tions, below, despite being on the out­side for sev­er­al years now.

You’re free to wrin­kle your nose at the thought of snack­ing on a crum­bled brick of uncooked ramen, but Guer­rero points out that some­one serv­ing a long sen­tence craves vari­ety in any form they can get. Expe­ri­enc­ing it can tap into the same sense of pride as self-gov­er­nance.

Guerrero’s recipes require a microwave (and a block of ramen).

Even if you’re not par­tic­u­lar­ly keen on eat­ing the fin­ished prod­uct, there’s a sci­ence project appeal to his Ramen Noo­dle Cook­ie. It calls for no addi­tion­al  ingre­di­ents, just ten min­utes cook­ing time, an out­ra­geous prospect in a com­mu­nal set­ting with only one microwave.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Prop­er Way to Eat Ramen: A Med­i­ta­tion from the Clas­sic Japan­ese Com­e­dy Tam­popo (1985)

What Goes Into Ramen Noo­dles, and What Hap­pens When Ramen Noo­dles Go Into You

Japan­ese Ani­ma­tion Direc­tor Hayao Miyaza­ki Shows Us How to Make Instant Ramen

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Relat­ed Con­tent 

What Actu­al­ly Is Bit­coin? Princeton’s Free Online Course “Bit­coin and Cur­ren­cy Tech­nolo­gies” Pro­vides Much-Need­ed Answers

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The Prince­ton Bit­coin Text­book Is Now Free Online

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