The Prison Mackerel Economy Comes to Virginia


Fresh off of its recent ban on lighting up in restaurants and bars, the state of Virginia is now hoping that by February 2010 the gradual enforcement of a ban on smoking in state prisons will be complete. According to The Washington Post, a fifth of Virginia's prisons are already following the new rule:

Virginia follows the federal prison system, as well as states including California, Texas, Michigan and Colorado, in instituting smoking bans in prisons over the past few years. Maryland has banned tobacco products at all 24 state prisons, inside and out, since 2001.

The Old Dominion is actually further behind the curve in banning smoking than the article implies. Almost every other state (and the federal government) has at least a partial ban on jailhouse smoking. So far, dire predictions of violence at the hands of nicotine-deprived prisoners have come to little—a few French Canadian troublemakers aside. (Smuggling and cranky guards, however, both abound.)

Since righteous libertarian outrage might be wasted defending the right of a convicted felon to his Pall Malls, let's instead consider this a teachable moment in economics. Check out this article from The Wall Street Journal that Reason's Jesse Walker noticed back in October 2008. When the federal prison system banned smoking in 2004, it also deprived prisoners of their best as-good-as-cash medium of exchange. Enter foul-tasting fish:

Mr. Levine and his client were prisoners in California's Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex. Like other federal inmates around the country, they found a can of mackerel—the "mack" in prison lingo—was the standard currency.

"It's the coin of the realm," says Mark Bailey, who paid Mr. Levine in fish. Mr. Bailey was serving a two-year tax-fraud sentence in connection with a chain of strip clubs he owned. Mr. Levine was serving a nine-year term for drug dealing. Mr. Levine says he used his macks to get his beard trimmed, his clothes pressed and his shoes shined by other prisoners. "A haircut is two macks," he says, as an expected tip for inmates who work in the prison barber shop. 

Check out more of Reason's coverage of smoking here.

For some excellent commentary on tobacco law outside of prison, check out Reason contributor Jacob Grier's run-down of a recent online back-and-forth about bars, bans, and "market failure."