Ramen Politics

Last month, I gave a brief conference presentation on informal economies in US state prisons. More specifically, I presented some in-progress research detailing a shift away from cigarettes as inmate "funny money" and towards ramen noodle packets as the de facto prison currency in my fieldsite. A similar shift has occurred in many prisons throughout the nation, sometimes with honey buns or canned fish replacing cigarettes. Either way, there seems to be a phenomenal move away from nonessential goods like tobacco (or stamps or envelopes) towards essential goods (like cheap, durable food products) as informal prison money.

The paper is a side project that spun out of a broader qualitative study of inmate labor in an anonymous state prison. But it got some great (and totally unexpected!) press, starting with a piece in in the Guardian and spreading to the Washington Post, BBC, NPR, the Atlantic, US News & World Report, and over 50 other reputable news outlets.

Here are some highlights:

- Cigarettes used to be the de facto currency behind bars. Over the past decade or so, many state prisoner populations began using food items as informal money instead.

- Like cigarettes, ramen noodles (the food money of choice in my fieldsite) are durable, portable, in high demand, and reducible to a common scale.

- Money (even informal prison money) does not change easily. It takes a cultural, structural, or economic constraint or shock to bring such a change about. In this case, the change has been a decrease in the quality and quantity of food behind bars, according to observations and accounts from prisoners as well as prison staff members. As desirable food becomes scarce, its value rises. In many prisons, this value has outpaced that of tobacco.

- It's not because the inmates have stopped smoking, though! Some state prisons have banned tobacco, but research shows that tobacco is still popular in these institutions -- it is just acquired via "cigarette black markets." And inmate populations still smoke at much higher rates than the rest of the population. What's more, even in prisons which haven't adopted smoking bans (like my fieldsite), this change from tobacco to food products as informal money has still occurred. And, again, it wasn't a shift from one nonessential good (tobacco) to another (like envelopes); instead, it was a shift from the nonessential to the increasingly essential.

- To situate all of this in a broader context, one might argue that trends in mass incarceration, the new penology, and the neoliberal state over recent decades have resulted in changes in prison funding and services, leading to practices of "punitive frugality" (becoming tough-and-cheap with prisoner populations). Such practices have in turn brought about changes in inmate practices. Rather than overt responses (such as rioting or strikes, which infrequently occur), this project uncovers a more covert response: the changing of informal economic practices, the modification of the prison black market, as an inmate response to grievances and to better meet their needs.

In the end, this is about more than a change in one prison. Long-time inmates and veteran prison staff members confirmed that similar shifts have occurred in other prisons where they have spent time. Online accounts from offenders and their loved ones across the country highlight this as well. The bottom line is that the nation's inmates in state prisons (which greatly outnumber federal prisons) have many grievances regarding the quality of service behind bars and varied ways to respond.