The Ramen Economy

According to penal experts, cigarettes have been the unit of currency in U.S. prisons going back to the Civil War. Now that mode of barter has been replaced by something else:


We’re not talking about the trendy stuff you might consume at places like Manhattan’s Momofuku Noodle Bar. Convicts are hoarding and trading the dried noodles familiar to students, struggling artists and poor people everywhere. The reason is simple: people behind bars aren’t getting enough to eat.

This conclusion was drawn by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona. He says that convicts are suffering from a policy called “punitive frugality,” and that both portions and food quality have deteriorated in prison over the past few decades. Well-heeled inmates can use ramen to trade for clothing, personal hygiene products or services such as laundry or cell cleaning. The less fortunate ones are using the dried noodles to supplement calories lacking in the prison diet.

In fact, the practice is so widespread that a book titled Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars became an Amazon best seller after it was published last year. The personal experiences of the authors (Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez) are interwoven with recipes for dishes such as Ramen Goulash, Black Bean Ramen and Onion Tortilla Ramen Soup. Ramen turns out to be far more versatile than anyone would have thought. Who needs David Chang?

The real question, of course, is whether the ramen economy can be expanded to the country at large. There are problems associated with making it a universal unit of currency (it’s not gluten-free, for example), but it’s not as bad as you think from a nutrition standpoint. I fished a cup of Maruchan Instant Chicken out of the cupboard and was surprised to find that it contained only 12 grams of fat and boasted 5 grams of protein. It’s high in carbs and sodium, but you can’t have everything.

Could ramen replace gold? Possibly, given that metals have no intrinsic value beyond what we assign to them, but gold’s real value is traceable to the finite supply. Ramen could easily supplant paper money, though, since the two are very similar: governments can manufacture as much of either of them as they want or need.

Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to

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