Criminal Justice

The Fish Standard

|

The Wall Street Journal's Justin Scheck reports:

There's been a mackerel economy in federal prisons since about 2004, former inmates and some prison consultants say. That's when federal prisons prohibited smoking and, by default, the cigarette pack, which was the earlier gold standard.

Prisoners need a proxy for the dollar because they're not allowed to possess cash. Money they get from prison jobs (which pay a maximum of 40 cents an hour, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons) or family members goes into commissary accounts that let them buy things such as food and toiletries. After the smokes disappeared, inmates turned to other items on the commissary menu to use as currency.

Books of stamps were one easy alternative. "It was like half a book for a piece of fruit," says Tony Serra, a well-known San Francisco criminal-defense attorney who last year finished nine months in Lompoc on tax charges. Elsewhere in the West, prisoners use PowerBars or cans of tuna, says Ed Bales, a consultant who advises people who are headed to prison. But in much of the federal prison system, he says, mackerel has become the currency of choice.

One reason the mackeral standard has taken off: Hardly anyone actually wants to eat the stuff. Another reason: "each can (or pouch) costs about $1." (So it's pegged to the dollar, then?)

The authorities' response: a steep tax on excess savings, a crackdown on unregulated trading, and, um, limits on credit:

The Bureau of Prisons views any bartering among prisoners as fishy. "We are aware that inmates attempt to trade amongst themselves items that are purchased from the commissary," says bureau spokeswoman Felicia Ponce in an email. She says guards respond by limiting the amount of goods prisoners can stockpile. Those who are caught bartering can end up in the "Special Housing Unit"—an isolation area also known as the "hole"—and could lose credit they get for good behavior.

Bonus link: Every time I blog a story like this, I feel obliged to throw in a link to R.A. Radford's classic article "The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp." If you've never read it before, you should.

Advertisement

NEXT: Spelunking the Bailout Bill — Carbon Tax Audit Anyone?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The Bureau of Prisons views any bartering among prisoners as fishy.

    Oh, come on. That’s awful.

  2. We need to adopt the mackerel standard now!

  3. I’m shocked that they didn’t assign a few inmates to just draw dollar bills for them. What happens if their economy needs a cash injection? This could be disastrous for them.

  4. Hell, with that. When this latest circus is over, and they’ve already handed out the bread, we’d all better figure out how many chickens an hour of our time is worth.

  5. To paraphrase Warren: HOOOOOOOOOVERVILLE!

  6. Kant, some time next week I’ll be selling my body on the street for food, I know it.

  7. The “authorities” response steep taxes, crackdowns, regulations, limits on blah blah blah

    No shit, what else do authorities do anyway

  8. The market economy in prisons brings tears to my eyes, especially in cases like this where every person cited in the article is there for reasons like this:

    two-year tax-fraud sentence
    nine-year term for drug dealing
    nine months […] on tax charges
    eight years on a methamphetamine charge
    two months [for] a protest on federal property [as if I can find a place to stand that isn’t or won’t be federal property at the drop of a hat]

    Most people try to be civil and engage in voluntary, peaceful, welfare-enhancing transactions wherever they find themselves–even after they get put in prison for conducting those very transactions.

  9. Kant- Call them by their proper nomenclature. They’re DUUUUUUUUUUBYATOWNS.

  10. Money they get from prison jobs (which pay a maximum of 40 cents an hour, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons) …

    Am I the only one who sees this as both foolish and immoral?

    That fact makes me feel shame.

  11. I’m concerned that this crackdown on the mackerel exchange might have unintended consequences for inside traders. It might leave some cell blocks overloaded with illiquid fish and no way to get rid of it, and thus unable to acquire operating capital like candy bars and razors. Being between the Rock and a hard place will either motivate drastic moves like large-scale shankings, or total failure of some of our largest institutionalized brokers.

    This is particularly threatening to America’s position as the world’s leading per-capita imprisoner.

  12. How many mackerels will does it cost to get Shilly D shanked in the yard?

    Just kidding, Shilly D, because I love.

  13. Money they get from prison jobs (which pay a maximum of 40 cents an hour, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons) …

    Am I the only one who sees this as both foolish and immoral?

    That fact makes me feel shame.

    …yeah, but room and board is included!

  14. I thought that a significant portion of the prison population have been claiming, buying, selling or trading fish for quite some time.

    Kevin

  15. The market economy in prisons brings tears to my eyes

    Hooverville or no, it’s enough to warm my little capitalist heart.

    Am I the only one who sees this as both foolish and immoral?

    No. It’s obscene.

  16. Am I the only one who sees this as both foolish and immoral?

    No. It’s obscene.

    All three. If someone asked me to work for $0.40 an hour, I’d tell them to kiss my ass. Even if I was in for twenty years.

  17. If someone asked me to work for $0.40 an hour, I’d tell them to kiss my ass. Even if I was in for twenty years.

    In one of my classes, they showed a film documenting various prison work programs. This one young guy (in on drug charges, natch) was so fucking happy he was learning to weld. He thought when he got out he’d get a good job. Dude probably won’t be able to vote when he gets out. It seriously made me want to cry.

  18. God damn, that’s depressing, Dagny. What class was that for?

  19. There are many things about the American prison system that are much more depressing than prisoners getting paid $0.40/hr.

  20. Look, they had to place limits on trading to ensure that the prison economy didn’t collapse.

  21. What class was that for?

    Something like Crime, Politics and Justice. The prof ?-ed Foucault, and therefore, me. It was depressing as shit, though. Particularly the part where my retarded classmates would pipe up with things like: “It’s against the law, so it’s wrong!”

  22. Particularly the part where my retarded classmates would pipe up with things like: “It’s against the law, so it’s wrong!”

    Yes, that is all too common. I avoided this stuff by…never going to class. Worked great.

  23. Read this again real slow and let it sink in…

    One reason the mackerel standard has taken off: Hardly anyone actually wants to eat the stuff.

    I may be fudging my terminology here so don’t crucify me but aren’t most non-fiat economic standards – gold, poppies, barter systems – based on something that has real or perceived value?

    And isn’t ‘value’ based on the fact that someone actually wants the medium of exchange?

    Weren’t cigarettes and power bars something that people, in the end, either wanted themselves or knew someone else wanted?

    I think this article is possibly a joke.

  24. madpad, I think this might be Gresham’s Law at work. If the tins of mackerel, a means of exchange and a store of value, were popular consumables, then the cons would actually eat the stuff, leading to serious deflation. As presented to us, the cans of fish are like the rattiest dollar bills in your wallet – you spend them, while slipping any pre-1965 quarters you may find into your piggy bank.

    Kevin

  25. Mackerel is okay, you just have to prepare it correctly. It’s an oily fish, like salmon, so no frying it or anything crazy like that. Of course, I’m not sure what kind of kitchens prisoners have these days.

  26. madpad, I was just gonna comment on how this seems to contradict Rothbard. But they were probably using it purposefully as a medium of exchange (they knew it was a convenient mechanism), rather than that medium crystallizing out of normal exchanges, like it might have with cigarettes.

  27. Cokes, cups of soup, assistance in legal preparation, pouches of tobacco, pens, craft supplies, and other things are used as currency in prison. It happens, we know it, and we know it’s against the rules. Everyone knows it’s against the rules, but it’s how things get done.

    What’s insidious is that it undermines all the rules. Under the idiotic Polonius rules of prison (“Neither a lender nor a borrower be” and all that,) commerce goes underground and that’s where the trouble starts.

    Everyone knows that after weekend visits there’s a sorting out of the dope bags. The races divide them up, sort them out, distribute them, get them paid for (each race handles its members’ debts, so the beatings and other forms of foreclosure proceedings keep from becoming racial incidents on the yards,) and otherwise handle their business. It’s all both obvious and unstoppable (minor visitors can’t be searched, to cite just one reason.)

    Plus, there’s that other scam afoot: protection. There’s a damn good chance an inmate will be forcefully exposed to HIV or Hep C if he isn’t willing to get money or drugs from the outside, kick some ass to get left alone, become a willing cocksucker (which is technically impossible, since consensual sex isn’t something possible for those who aren’t legally able to consent to anything, which is strange when they are under investigation and can testify,) or do something else to not be targeted.

    Prison’s a lovely place. Don’t go there unless you get to go home every evening and stay home on weekends. And even then, it still sucks.

  28. The trick would be to horn in on the canning action. There’s a toll-road model for the taking.

    I want to connect this story to the later Dune books. Herbert posits a military order called The Fish Speakers. I know there’s a link, somehow.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.