Instant ramen: it's warm, flavorful, quick, cheap and filling.
It's the chosen favorite among college kids and inmates across America.
Check usage reports from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections for example, and you'll see that ramen was the number one sold item at prison commissaries.
Ramen has become like cash among American prisoners.
Because behind bars, it can buy you anything.
Anything that's got any value.
From clothes, drugs, a favor.
Hey, I like the way your penmanship is, can you write this letter for me, can you draw this for me,you know anything.
It's literally gold.
After 13 years in and out of prison, he literally wrote the book on Prison Ramen.
Ramen is the best and easiest currency because everybody uses it.
That's everybody's staple to cook. You gotta have ramen.
Because prisoners can't possess cash, they use objects to trade for other goods and services…
And anything that replaces cash has to be durable, portable, divisible into standardized units and highly valued.
Ramen fits the bill, because unlike other traded objects like stamps- which are expensive, and tobacco- which is banned in most prisons, ramen is cheap and easy to get a hold of.
In the commissary, a single pack of ramen runs about $.59 on average.
But, once it's out of the official commissary, ramen's value is determined by an informal prison economy.
They barter with it, they become jailhouse stores so to speak, like guys would purchase all the ramen, kind of like that scene in Orange Is The New Black.
She took over the market.
Jesus, who bought all the ramens?
Guys fill up their shelves with this and they have their own store.
And they put their price on it.
Your ramen could sell for two to three dollars believe it or not.
A 2016 study found that while a sweatshirt cost $10.81 at the commissary at Sunbelt State Penitentiary, an inmate could sell that sweatshirt for 2 packs of ramen, increasing the value of ramen by 916 percent.
In fact, food items are the overwhelming majority of what people buy.
An analysis of annual commissary sales in three states shows that 75% of spending was entirely on food and beverages.
Inmates aren't just using ramen as cash; they are also eating it.
Creative cooking in prison is a necessity.
When asked if prison meals were enough to live off of, Alvarez said. No, I think you would starve. literally.
I lost like ten pounds you know because they give you a meal that's maybe for a five-year-old, a 10 year old.
But it wasn't up to par.
It wasn't your four food groups, it was none of that.
So ramen can supplement when the food provided isn't enough.
With 2.3 million people in US prisons, and pressure to cut costs, food is one area where federal and state governments are trying to save money.
Some inmates are now being fed for as little as $1.77 a meal.
In one instance, the Marshall Project reported one prison that had whittled down costs to as low as $.56 a meal.
But keeping food costs low doesn't come without consequences.
Aramark, a private food vendor to over 600 correctional facilities, has been cited for giving inmates tainted food and serving fewer and smaller meals.
New information tonight about ongoing problems with maggots found in Ohio prison kitchens.
Issues like this with Aramark and other private food vendors have prompted civil lawsuits and protests in response to the state of food.
Turns out food isn't just about nutrition; it's also about security.
Despite everything ramen has become a way inmates keep a sense of control while in the system.
We would actually make a humongous spread.
These soups would be the equalizer for all of us to sit down and have a meal and not stress what's happening in the prison yard.
Trade and bartering in prison isn't new, but until there are systemic changes in its food system, ramen will likely stay at the top of the prison trade economy.