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