Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 199–220 | Cite as

Ramen Politics: Informal Money and Logics of Resistance in the Contemporary American Prison

  • Michael Gibson-LightEmail author


This article explores an unexpected yet pervasive arena in which changes to security may alter lived experiences of and responses to punishment. Namely, amidst changes in the quality of care behind U.S. prison walls and resultant prisoner insecurities in the face of neoliberal penology, the nation’s prisoners have adapted informal prison markets to address unmet needs and pursue autonomy. Where cigarettes once reigned as the de facto token of exchange in the underground economy, the contemporary American prison is now home to a new form of informal money: cheap, reliable food items like ramen noodles. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork within a U.S. men’s state prison and 82 in-depth interviews with prisoners and institutional staff, this paper explores this change in the form of informal prison money and what it reveals about the nation’s prisons and prisoners. It contends that prison money reflects changing logics of prisoner resistance in particular political-economic and penal contexts. As prison administrative practices, institutional conditions, and legal environments change with time, prisoners adapt expressions of autonomy accordingly. While cigarettes symbolized withdrawal from the rigors of prison life and individualized treatment—the dominant logic of resistance of the prior era—the new ramen currency reflects a growing emphasis on prison “foodways” in opposition to cost-shifting and deteriorating services behind bars.


Prison Informal economy Money Neoliberalism Resistance 



I am indebted to the prisoners and staff of Sunbelt State Penitentiary for allowing me into their lives to conduct this research. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers and editorial team for helping to improve this article. For helping work through ideas or providing feedback, thanks to: Jennifer Carlson, Alex Kinney, Hannah Clarke, Simone Rambotti, Eric Bjorklund, Karyn Light-Gibson, Andrew Davis, Jess Pfaffendorf, Erin Heinz, Morgan Johnstonbaugh, Beksahn Jang, Kyle Puetz, Kate Freeman Anderson, Kathleen Schwartzman, Jeff Sallaz, and Adam Reich. Finally, thanks to Clifton Collins Jr. and Gustavo Alvarez for helping inspire this article.


  1. American Nonsmokers Rights Foundation. 2016. 100% smokefree and tobacco-free correctional facilities. American Nonsmokers Rights Foundation. Accessed 20 May 2016.
  2. Asmundson, Irena, and Ceyda Oner. 2012. Back to basics: What is money? Finance and Development 49 (3): 52.Google Scholar
  3. Aviram, Hadar. 2014. The inmate export business and other financial adventures: Correctional policies for times of austerity. Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal 11: 111–156.Google Scholar
  4. Aviram, Hadar. 2015. Cheap on crime. Oakland: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  5. Aviram, Hadar. 2016a. Are private prisons to blame for mass incarceration and its evils? Prison conditions, neoliberalism, and public choice. Fordham Urban Law Journal 42 (2): 410–449.Google Scholar
  6. Aviram, Hadar. 2016b. The correctional hunger games: Understanding realignment in the context of the great recession. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 664 (1): 260–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Beckert, Jens. 2010. The transcending power of goods: Imaginative value in the economy. MPIfG Discussion Paper, No. 10/4. Accessed 20 May 2016.
  8. Brisman, Avi. 2008. Fair fare? Food as contested terrain in U.S. prisons and jails. Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy 15 (1): 49–93.Google Scholar
  9. Buchanan, Kim. 2007. It could happen to ‘you’: Pay-to-stay jail upgrades. Michigan Law Review 106: 60–117.Google Scholar
  10. Camplin, Erika. 2017. Prison food in America. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  11. Carruthers, Bruce. 2005. The sociology of money and credit. In The handbook of economic sociology, ed. Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg, 355–378. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Carruthers, Bruce, and Sarah Babb. 1996. The color of money and the nature of value: Greenbacks and gold in postbellum America. American Journal of Sociology 101 (6): 1556–1591.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clark, Ramsey. 1972. Prisons: Factories of crime. In Prisons, protests, and politics, ed. Burton Atkins and Henry Glick, 15–24. Englewood: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  14. Clements, Carl. 1985. Prison resource management: Working smarter, not harder. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 478: 173–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cobb, Alonzo. 1985. Home truths about prison overcrowding. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 478: 73–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cohen, Benjamin. 2004. The future of money. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction ritual chains. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Collins, Clifton, and Gustavo Alvarez. 2015. Prison ramen. New York: Workman.Google Scholar
  19. Colvin, Mark. 1992. The penitentiary in crisis. Albany: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  20. Crewe, Ben. 2007. Power, adaptation, and resistance in a late-modern men’s prison. British Journal of Criminology 47: 256–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Earle, Rod, and Coretta Phillips. 2012. Digesting men? Ethnicity, gender, and food: Perspectives from a ‘prison ethnography. Theoretical Criminology 16 (2): 141–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Edgar, Kimmett, Ian O’Donnell, and Carol Martin. 2003. Tracking the pathways to violence in prison. In Researching violence, ed. Elizabeth Stanko and Raymond Lee, 81–99. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Errington, Frederick, Tatsuro Fujikura, and Deborah Gewertz. 2012. Instant noodles as an antrifriction device: Making the BOP with PPP in PNG. American Anthropologist 114 (1): 19–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Feeley, Malcolm and Jonathan Simon. 1992. The new penology: Notes on the emerging strategies of corrections and its implications. Criminology 40 (4): 449–474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Federal Bureau of Prisons. 2015. Agency pillars. Accessed 4 Jan 2016.
  26. Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and punish. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  27. Gipson, Frances, and Elizabeth Pierce. 1996. Current trends in state inmate user fee programs for health services. Journal of Correctional Health Care 3 (2): 159–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Glaze, Lauren and Danielle Kaeble. 2014. Correctional populations in the United States, 2013.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC December: 1–14.Google Scholar
  29. Godderis, Rebecca. 2006. Food for thought: An analysis of power and identity in prison food narratives. Berkeley Journal of Sociology 50: 61–75.Google Scholar
  30. Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums. New York: Anchor.Google Scholar
  31. Goodman, Philip. 2014. Race in California’s prison fire camps for men: Prison politics, space, and the racialization of everyday life. American Journal of Sociology 120 (2): 352–394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Gottschalk, Marie. 2006. The prison and the gallows. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gottschalk, Marie. 2010. Cell blocks and red ink: Mass incarceration, the Great Recession, and penal reform. Daedalus 139 (3): 62–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Grace, Francie. 2003. Cost cutters slash prison food budgets.” CBS News, May 14. Accessed 19 May 2016.
  35. Gray, Michael. 2001. The Business of captivity. Kent OH: Kent State: University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Guilbaud, Fabrice. 2010. Working in prison: Time as experienced by inmate-workers. Revue Française de Sociologie 51 (5): 41–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Guilbaud, Fabrice. 2012. To challenge and suffer: The forms and foundations of working inmates’ social criticism. Sociétés Contemporaines 87: 99–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Harwell, Drew. 2010. Honey buns sweeten life for Florida prisoners. Tampa Bay Times. Accessed 23 Dec 2015.
  39. Heffernan, Esther. 1972. Making it in prison. New York: Wiley and Sons.Google Scholar
  40. Ingham, Geoffrey. 1996. Money is a social relation. Review of Social Economy 54 (4): 507–529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Irwin, John. 2005. The warehouse prison. Los Angeles: Roxbury.Google Scholar
  42. Jackson, Bruce. 1966. Folk ingenuity behind bars. New York Folklore 22 (4): 243–250.Google Scholar
  43. Jackson, Steven. 2007. Mapping the prison telephone industry. In Prison profiteers, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, 235–248. New York: The New Press.Google Scholar
  44. Karpova, Polina. 2013. Predicting inmate economic conflict in female housing units: Individual factors versus social climate factors. Master’s thesis, Eastern Kentucky University.Google Scholar
  45. Kauffman, Ross. 2009. Smoking and tobacco in Ohio prisons. PhD dissertation, The Ohio State University.Google Scholar
  46. Kauffman, Ross, Amy Ferketich, and Mary Ellen Wewers. 2008. Tobacco policy in American prisons, 2007. Tobacco Control 17 (5): 357–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kennedy, Sara, Shane Davis, and Stacy Thorne. 2014. Smoke-free policies in US prisons and jails: A review of the literature. Nicotine and Tobacco Research 2014: 1–7.Google Scholar
  48. King, Roy, and Alison Liebling. 2008. Doing research in prisons. In Doing research on crime and justice, ed. Roy King and Emma Wincup, 431–454. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Kyckelhahn, Tracey. 2012. State corrections expenditures, FY 1982–2010. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC. December: 1–14.Google Scholar
  50. Lankenau, Stephen. 2001. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em: Cigarette black markets in US prisons and jails. The Prison Journal 81 (2): 142–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Levenson, Laurie, and Mary Gordon. 2007. The dirty little secrets about pay-to-stay. Michigan Law Review First Impressions 106: 67–70.Google Scholar
  52. Levingston, Kirsten. 2007. Making the bad guy pay: The growing use of cost shifting as an economic sanction. In Prison profiteers, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, 52–79. New York: The New Press.Google Scholar
  53. Lietaer, Bernard, and Jacqui Dunne. 2013. Rethinking money. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.Google Scholar
  54. Lynch, Mona. 2010. Sunbelt justice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Morris, Terrence, and Pauline Morris. 1963. Pentonville. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  56. NPR Staff. 2015. Behind bars, cheap ramen is as good as gold. NPR. Accessed 1 Jan 2016.
  57. Osborne, David. 1993. Reinventing government. Public Productivity and Management Review 16: 349–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Owens, Frankie. 2012. The little book of prisons. Hampshire, UK: Waterside.Google Scholar
  59. Paynter, Ben. 2011. Prison economics: How fish and coffee became cash. Wired Magazine. Accessed 23 Dec 2015.
  60. Pogorzeleski, Wendy, Nancy Wolff, Ko-Yu Pan, and Cynthia Blitz. 2005. Behavioral health problems, ex-offender reentry policies, and the Second Chance Act. American Journal of Public Health 95 (10): 1718–1724.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Portes, Alejandro, and William Haller. 2010. The informal economy. In The handbook of economic sociology, ed. Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg, 403–425. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Radford, R.A. 1945. The economic organization of a POW camp. Economica 35: 189–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Reed, Adam. 2007. Smuk is king: The action of cigarettes in a Papua New Guinea prison. In Thinking through things, ed. Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell, 32–46. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  64. Reiter, Keramet. 2014. The Pelican Bay hunger strike: Resistance within the structural constraints of a US supermax prison. The South Atlantic Quarterly 113 (3): 579–611.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Richmond, Robyn, Tony Butler, Kay Wilhelm, Alex Wodak, Margaret Cunningham, and Ian Anderson. 2009. Tobacco in prisons: A focus group study. Tobacco Control 18 (3): 176–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Rondinelli, Dennis, and Shabbir Cheema. 2003. Reinventing government for the twenty-first century. Hartford CT: Kumarian.Google Scholar
  67. Ross, Jeffrey. 2009. Resisting the carceral state: Prisoner resistance from the bottom up. Social Justice 36 (3): 28–45.Google Scholar
  68. Scheck, Justin. 2008. Mackerel economics in prison leads to appreciation for oily fillets. The Wall Street Journal. Accessed 23 Dec 2015.
  69. Schlanger, Margo. 2006. Civil rights injunctions over time: A case study of jail and prison court orders. New York University Law Review 81: 550–630.Google Scholar
  70. Smoyer, Amy. 2016a. Making fatty girl cakes: Food and resistance in a women’s prison. The Prison Journal 96 (2): 191–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Smoyer, Amy. 2016b. Mapping prison foodways. In Experiencing imprisonment, ed. Carla Reeves, 96–112. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  72. Smoyer, Amy, and Giza Lopes. 2017. Hungry on the inside: Prison food as concrete and symbolic punishment in a women’s prison. Punishment and Society 19 (2): 240–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Snow, David. 1993. Down on their luck. Oakland: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  74. Sweeting, Helen and Kate Hunt. 2015. Evidence on smoking and smoking restrictions in prisons. MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit. Accessed 9 June 2017.
  75. Sykes, Gresham. 1958. The society of captives. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  76. Taylor, Paul, Cassandra Ogden, and Karen Corteen. 2012. Tobacco smoking and incarceration: Expanding the ‘last poor smoker’ thesis. Internet Journal of Criminology.
  77. Terry, Charles. 2004. Managing prisoners as problem populations and the evolving nature of imprisonment: A convict perspective. Critical Criminology 12: 43–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Thibodeau, Laura, David Seal, Douglas Jorenby, Kerri Corcoran, and James Sosman. 2012. Perceptions and influences of a state prison smoking ban. Journal of Correctional Health Care 18 (4): 293–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Timmermans, Stefan, and Iddo Tavory. 2012. Theory construction in qualitative research from grounded theory to abductive analysis. Sociological Theory 30 (3): 167–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. 2011. Program Statement Number 5580.08: Inmate Personal Property. Accessed 4 Jan 2016.
  81. Ugelvik, Thomas. 2011. The hidden food: Mealtime resistance and identity work in a Norwegian prison. Punishment and Society 13 (1): 47–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Valentine, Gill, and Beth Longstaff. 1998. Doing porridge: Food and social relations in a male prison. Journal of Material Culture 3 (2): 131–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Van den Berg, Jacob, Beck Bock, Mary Roberts, Lynda Stein, Peter Friedman, Stephen Martin, and Jennifer Clarke. 2013. Cigarette smoking as an expression of independence and freedom among inmates in a tobacco-free prison in the United States. Nicotine and Tobacco Research 16 (2): 238–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Von Zielbauer, Paul. 2007. Private health care in jails can be a death sentence. In Prison profiteers, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, 204–227. New York: The New Press.Google Scholar
  85. Wacquant, Loic. 2001. Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and clash. Punishment and Society 3 (1): 95–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wacquant, Loic. 2002. The curious eclipse of prison ethnography in the age of mass incarceration. Ethnography 3 (4): 371–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Wacquant, Loic. 2010. Crafting the neoliberal state: Workfare, prisonfare, and social insecurity. Sociological Forum 25 (2): 197–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Western, Bruce. 2006. Punishment and inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  89. Western, Bruce, Mary Pattillo, and David Weiman. 2004. Introduction. In Imprisoning america, ed. Mary Pattillo, David Weiman, and Bruce Western, 1–20. New York: Russell Sage.Google Scholar
  90. Yardley, Elizabeth, and David Wilson. 2013. Prison for beginners? The strengths, limitations, and potential applications of prisoner handbooks. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 52 (5): 462–478.Google Scholar
  91. Yglesias, Matthew. 2008. Prison currency. Think Progress. Accessed 23 Dec 2015.
  92. Zelizer, Viviana. 2001. Sociology of money. In International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences, ed. James Wright, 9991–9995. New York: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Zelizer, Viviana. 2010. Economic lives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Personalised recommendations