Why does ramen rule the prison economy?

Ramen and tinned fish have replaced cigarettes as the most common currency at many jails.


July 1, 2019

In jail, where inmates aren’t allowed to handle cold, hard cash, most people imagine the same stereotypical prison currency: cigarettes.

But, according to Carl Cattermole — the author of Prison: A Survival Guide — tinned fish and ramen are the most common currency in jails.

In prison, 2 soups are worth 1 sweatshirt

A few things make cigarettes, fish, and ramen good currencies: They’re nonperishable, come in standard units, trade easily, and have intrinsic value.

In some prisons, inmates can buy a sweatshirt (worth $10.81 in the prison commissary) for 2 “soups” — or 5 hand-rolled cigarettes for 1 soup.

But why did ramen and tinned fish replace cigarettes at the top?

Cost cuts and smoking bans gave rise to the ramen economy

After US federal jails banned smoking in 2004, cigarettes became a less reliable currency than ramen or tinned fish. But, more importantly, cost cuts have made high-calorie ramen extremely valuable to hungry inmates.

An inmate told the author of a 2016 study, “’You can tell how good a man’s doing [financially] by how many soups he’s got in his locker. ‘Twenty soups? Oh, that guy’s doing good!’”

Soup seems simple… 

But the ramen economy is surprisingly complex: Inmates can rack up debt with people who hold large ramen reserves, earn higher credit limits, and even refinance soup debts with different ramen reserve-holders.

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