From ramen to sleeping space, the currencies of prisons around the globe

The World
Prisoners are forced to lie on the ground after their prison riot was quelled at the Lira Central Prison in Northern Uganda February 13, 2013.

Prisoners are forced to lie on the ground after their prison riot was quelled at the Lira Central Prison in Northern Uganda, February 13, 2013.

Hudson Apuny/Reuters

Some mistakes are bigger than others. Like the ones that get you sent to prison. Should you find yourself in prison, it's important to learn the local currency.

For decades it was a pack of cigarettes around the globe. That's still true. But in the US it's something else: ramen.

Yes.

It turns out that noodles can really open doors behind bars. Inmates also view ramen as the perfect food. "Ramen is one of those ubiquitous foods that has basic nutritional content. It's cheap. It's easy. It's available. A lot can be done with it," says Baz Dreisinger, author of "Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World."

Dreisinger says there are striking similarities in "prison currencies" around the world. For her book, she visited nine countries and learned about the commodities market within the prisons.

"For the most part we're talking about basic necessities like food, or space. A Ugandan prison I was at it was dramatically overcrowded," she says. "So having a space to sleep was a commodity that was traded — of course, that's a glaring tragedy."

In South Africa, it's all about minutes. "Smuggled phones are a great commodity in any prison context. But how you make calls, you know, you need airtime. So in South Africa, airtime is a big commodity."

Still, other countries are more open than others to the exchange of goods. She highlights prisons in Australia that are more experimental. "People are given kind of a credit card," she says. "It's deeper than a commissary card. They are actually given a kind of real currency to work with. It's meant to promote independence."

That mimics real life, Dreisinger says. And it's the goal of these prisons to use the false currency to better help the prisoners re-enter real life once they leave.