Food has gotten so bad at one prison that inmates are trading ramen noodles over cigarettes

Drastic cuts in prison food services over the last few decades have resulted in inmates using packets of ramen noodles as currency, according to one recent study by the University of Arizona.

As spending on correctional facilities and services has decreased across the board, inmates have progressively moved to use ramen noodles as the barter good of choice to replace the poor quality food received from prison services, according to the study authored by Michael Gibson-Light, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Arizona School of Sociology.

Gibson-Light interviewed approximately 60 inmates at a state prison as part of a study on prison labour. The prison, which he identified only as in the Sun Belt region of the US, has approximately 5,000 inmates.

[Ramen] is easy to get and it’s high in calories,” Gibson-Light told the Guardian. “A lot of them, they spend their days working and exercising and they don’t have enough energy to do these things. From there it became more a story, why ramen in particular.”

Previously, “luxury” goods such as cigarettes, stamps, and envelopes were considered the most popular barter goods in correctional facilities, according to the study. In recent years, prisons have transferred costs onto prisoners or cut services to remain cost-effective — a trend Gibson-Light termed “punitive frugality.”

Spending cuts in food services were apparent at the state prison Gibson-Light studied, by way of prisons purchasing “ever-cheaper provisions, shrinking serving sizes, and limiting the number of meals that inmates receive[d] per week.”

In the early 2000s, inmates at the prison received three hot meals per day, but after another private firm took over food preparation and distribution, Gibson-Light notes, “the second meal was reduced in size and changed to cold cut sandwiches and a small bag of chips.” Additionally, lunch was later removed from weekend menus and portion sizes in all meals were further reduced.

“It’s 1000 times worse,” one worker at the prison told Gibson-Light of the food since a private firm took over. “They don’t even let the cooks test it, ’cause it tastes that bad. They won’t let us season it! Throughout the state, there needs to be some sort of sitdown strike to set it right.”

Over the years, inmates at the prison have become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of food they receive, and some have contemplated rioting and other forms of violence, though none were carried out in the period during which the study was carried out.

However, some inmates who were interviewed were outwardly critical of food services, with one remarking that “They treat us worse than the [police] dogs. They feed the dogs better.” Another added that if an inmate didn’t get more food on his or her own, they would starve.

In one instance, a correctional officer told Gibson-Light not to eat the food at the prison lest he receive food poisoning. The officer claimed to have gotten food poisoning after eating “prison chow,” later finding out that the chicken he had eaten was labelled “not for human consumption.”

Some inmates told Gibson-Light that the sharp decline in quality and quantity of food is the result of a prison population that’s increasing faster than what the Department of Corrections (DOC) can afford to pay for.

“There’s so many people in prison now that DOC can’t afford to feed all these people. They’re following the [minimum calorie] guidelines and they’re right on the line of that,” Levi, a prison cook interviewed for the study, said.

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