Ramen tops US inmates' most wanted - study

Instant ramen noodles were created in Japan in 1958 and have been popular ever since (Getty)
Instant ramen noodles were created in Japan in 1958 and have been popular ever since (Getty)

They're a gastronomic wonder and a staple for students, and now ramen noodles are the most wanted item in at least one US prison.

A new study from the University of Arizona suggests the packets of dried noodles are now more sought after than cigarettes, and are used as currency by inmates because the prison food has become so bad.

Author Michael Gibson-Light says prisoners are trying to find better food following budget cuts at some prisons.

The prized ramen becoming a currency is a show of "punitive frugality" which pushes the cost of care onto prisoners and their support networks.

While not a formal policy in prisons, there's an observable trend of it throughout the US, Mr Gibson-Light says.

"Throughout the nation, we can observe prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting as well as changes in the informal economic practices of inmates," he said.

"Services are cut back and many costs are passed on to inmates in an effort to respond to calls to remain both tough on crime and cost effective."

The decline in quality of prison food hasn't happened overnight - the US Bureau of Prisons data shows per capita spending hasn't kept up with inmate numbers since 1982.

In 2010, the bureau spent US$48.5 billion on corrections - which was a 5.6 percent decrease from the previous year.

"The past few decades have seen steady decreases in the quality and quantity of inmate food," Mr Gibson-Light said.

"Prisoners are so unhappy with the quality and quantity of prison food that they receive that they have begun relying on ramen noodles - a cheap, durable food product - as a form of money in the underground economy," he said.

"Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods."

The popular food is being traded for other commodities including food, clothes, hygiene products and services like laundry.

They're even being used to gamble in card games.

While Mr Gibson-Light's 12 months investigation, which started in May 2015, only applied to one prison he said there's evidence it could also be the case in prisons which haven't banned tobacco.

In all, he interviewed around 60 inmates and prison staff members. He also watched prisoners involved in work.

Mr Gibson-Light believes more study is needed into prison food services and what a cut in support could mean for the quality of care for inmates.