Are cigarettes the currency of the prison?

Cigarettes have had their day as an underground currency in American prisons. The inmates prefer ramen, a ready-made noodle soup that they pour hot water on. The reason is simple: You are hungry, says Michael Gibson-Light of the University of Arizona, who did a study on it. "Because they are cheap, tasty and high in calories, ramen have become so valuable that they can be exchanged for other goods." The Japanese dry noodles cost 59 cents in the prison shop. In exchange for two parcels, you get a sweatshirt among the inmates on the black market that is worth more than ten dollars.

Between 2002 and 2010, there are no more recent figures, state spending on prisons fell slightly to $ 48.5 billion annually, while the number of inmates rose rapidly. There are now more than 2.2 million people in custody in the United States. Prisons across the country are trying to cut the cost of feeding prisoners. Even in state-run prisons, the kitchen is increasingly being taken over by a private company. According to the nonprofit group The Marshall Project, many prisons have canceled lunch and some days criminals only get around 1,700 calories. That's 1000 fewer calories than the US Health Department recommends for moderately active men. In the Gordon County Jail, human rights activists say they even eat toothpaste and toilet paper if necessary.

An Arizona sheriff advertises on his résumé that the food in his prisons is cheaper than anywhere else in the United States: between 15 and 40 cents. He cut salt and pepper and saved $ 20,000 a year. According to a 2005 study from Harvard, food is often used as a punishment: it is withheld or presented unsavory. Also, inmates could not rely on the meal not to poison them, possibly intended by the guards. The strict US laws for food safety do not apply behind bars, instead there is a jumble of rules, some of which even differ from institution to institution and often do not even guarantee basic hygiene.

"No matter who you are, you cook ramen"

Ramen, on the other hand, is hermetically sealed and has an expiration date. Gibson-Light interviewed almost 60 inmates for his study; reports from other prisons confirm his assessment. Ramen has been the favorite food in jail for years, writes former inmate Gustavo "Goose" Alvarez in his book "Prison Ramen". In it he provides ideas on how to refine the soup with ingredients from the prison shop or the kitchen. "It's the staple of everyone in prison," says Alvarez. "No matter who you are, you cook ramen."

Inmates pay for the noodle soup with the wages they receive in the prison facilities or with money that visitors give them. Behind bars, wealth is now mainly determined by how many packets of ramen the inmate stores. "Currencies don't change often and easily, not even in the underground society in prisons," says Gibson-Light. "It takes a bigger problem or shock to trigger that."