Five Surprising Things Prisoners Use As Currency

It gets lonely in the joint.

In the corrections system, though, solitude is a poor excuse for a lack of motivation. Behind penitentiary walls, enterprising businessmen amass vast fortunes of strange talismans. These eccentric fortunes cannot be deposited into traditional banks nor can their value be determined by adding machines.

The prison system disallows inmates from having bills and banknotes, what they call “folding money.” However, in any economy where goods and services are exchanged, a value must be attached to those goods and services. That value — in our traditional economy — is expressed in dollars and cents. But in the joint, things work differently. In the joint, value must be expressed in other ways.

In traditional economies, money has three primary functions: as a medium of exchange, as a unit of account and as a store of value. In prison, substitutes for money will often elevate themselves above their accepted uses to assume the functions of money. Common objects — everyday objects — evolve and rise above their purposes to become greater than the sum of their parts.

Often, uncommon items — items not sold by the prison commissary — will assume the role of currency. For example, with an increased amount of drug tests being performed in America’s prisons, clean urine has transformed into valuable merchandise. Stored in condoms and kept at body temperature, inmates are able to trade their waste, bartering with other inmates for food, luxuries, necessities or services.

In the joint: everything has a value and ingenuity is priceless.

And with that, we celebrate the improvised, underground economies of America’s vast prison system. From slimy, gelatinous tin packets of salted meat to the sinister grins of men gathered in a smoky boiler room to debate the value of a fixed-price commodity, here are five prison currencies that define economics in the joint.

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5 Cigarettes

When you think of prison economics, the first means of debt settlement that comes to mind is likely cigarettes. Cigarettes have featured in countless films, TV series and novels as the currency of choice for hardened criminals. However, there is a very real history behind their use and several concrete, measurable reasons for their success as a form of payment.

During the second World War, POWs began using cigarettes as a proxy for cash as a means to purchase food, services and other necessities inside their camp. Offering uniformity, durability and a convenient size, cigarettes soon evolved into the primary currency within POW camps, even in trades between non-smokers.

Nowadays, in most states, there is a full ban on tobacco products inside correctional facilities. With a limited supply, the price of tobacco products on the inside has skyrocketed to the point where a $15 can of tobacco purchased outside prison walls can be sold for as much as $500 on the other side.

4 Mackerel

When correctional facilities began to institute bans on tobacco products, a void swelled in prison economies across the country. Since 2004, prison inmates have been using a form of currency they call “mack.” Trading goods and services for small tins — or pouches — of preserved mackerel, inmates have built an entire economic structure around the oily fish.

Two macks for a haircut. One mack for a shoeshine. Mackerel is so popular, in fact, that improvised black markets are known to spontaneously emerge around it with inmates offering hand-crafted specialty items ranging from bootleg wine to microwaved haute cuisine.

Suppliers of canned mackerel have noted a marked increase in mackerel sales to prisons since 2004 despite poor sales everywhere else. Mark Muntz, president of Global Source Marketing, said his company had “even tried 99-cent stores. It never has done very well at all, regardless of the retailer, but it's very popular in the prisons.”

3 Green Dot Cards

Described in court documents as “simple and advantageous for incarcerated individuals,” Green Dot cards are prepaid MasterCard and Visa cards sold at more than 60,000 retail stores nationwide. The cards — or “dots” as inmates refer to them — provide inmates with a simple and nearly undetectable method of transferring money into, within and outside of their prison.

First noticed in the Baltimore area in 2008, the cards were employed in extortion plots and used to sell copies of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) handbook. According to a 2008 federal indictment, the BGF — a major player in Maryland’s correctional facilities — would often require new inmates to pay a protection fee via the prepaid debit cards. Failure to pay resulted in pretty much exactly what anyone who has ever seen an episode of Oz would expect.

Taking into account the corruptibility of prison personnel, the technological mobility of prepaid debit cards and their inherent anonymity, Green Dot cards hit the trifecta of prison currencies. In 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration broke down the doors of Alicia Simmons’ house. Simmons, a correction officer, was later found guilty of smuggling contraband for the BGF. Green Dot cards were noted in the catalog of items uncovered during the search of her house.

2 Violence

It should come as no surprise that the average prison economy is short on legal safeguards and long on forms of bill collection that involve cracking skulls, breaking arms and rupturing testicles. According to one officer, “[i]f inmates don't get paid then criminal acts are going to follow, violence is going to follow… Then who gets hurt? Often staff members who are trying to break it up.”

Furthermore, among the items and services purchasable by the more tame currencies, acts of violence — like everything — have their own prices. Hits — violent acts — on other prisoners can be purchased from willing vendors and this is where the line between commodity and currency begins to blur. When a prisoner exchanges a handful of cigarettes for an act of violence, who is the buyer and who is the seller?

Because violence acts in place of the judicial process and because it serves as both tender and product, it comes part and parcel with all of the back room dealings that take place inside the prison’s walls. It becomes an independent currency in and of itself. Before every transaction, a buyer — or worse, a loanee — must weigh the costs against the benefits. Is a five minute phone call worth a shattered kneecap? Is one more plate of grub worth partial blindness?

1 Postage Stamps

The most widely used prison currency, stamps offer a few major advantages over other forms of payment. The biggest advantage afforded by stamps is that inmates are allowed to have them. On average, correctional facilities allow inmates to have a maximum of three books of first class postage stamps. In reality, inmates often stockpile many, many more.

With a shadowy class of “store men” determining the value of the postage stamp behind prison walls, inmates can typically expect 70% of a stamp’s face value when bartering. Store men — prison businessmen who have amassed a vast fortune of stamps — often mail stamps to loved ones outside the prison system effectively converting their fortune into cash, reducing the number of stamps in play and thereby inflating the value of individual stamps.

Surprisingly, postage stamps are considered legal tender. This largely overlooked fact constitutes the second advantage that postage stamps offer over other prison currencies: postage stamps are, in fact, the only form of legitimate currency that inmates have unrestricted access to.

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