In his 1945 article “The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp,” the British economist R.A. Radford recounted his experiences within the informal system of barter among prisoners at Stalag VII-A, a German camp on the outskirts of Munich during the Second World War. Using supplies delivered by the Red Cross, some prisoners moved between different nationalities’ encampments, buying tea for cheap from the French (who tended to prefer coffee) and then selling it to the British (whose affection for tea is a matter of centuries-old lore). Meanwhile, imprisoned Gurkha soldiers from South Asia sought out tins of vegetables and bartered them for corned beef.
Radford’s account, which was compellingly retold by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan in their recent book The Inner Lives of Markets, explains that, in the absence of paper money, prisoners had to pick another currency to enable their transactions: cigarettes. “A ration of margarine might be bought for seven cigarettes, the equivalent, for instance, of one and a half chocolate bars, and so on,” Fisman and Sullivan write. “For the most part, prices were well known and consistent among the camp’s many huts that acted as local markets.”
Be they in wartime Bavaria or modern-day America, a surprising number of prisoners have lived in systems whose internal economies have centered on tobacco. However, according to a study released on Monday by Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in the University of Arizona’s school of sociology, cigarettes have been supplanted in the United States by instant ramen. Gibson-Light argues that this dynamic has less to do with the national drop in smoking rates or the banning of cigarettes in some prisons and more to do with prisons’ finances. At the state prison where he conducted his study, budget cuts led to a reduction of the caliber and total number of meals that prisoners received, which meant that the practical value of ramen skyrocketed. “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 wrote in a press release accompanying his paper, which was presented at the American Sociological Association’s convention, in Seattle.