Tobacco

The Prison Mackerel Economy Comes to Virginia

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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."

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  1. Bad smelling money replaces good.

  2. Why can’t there be smoking prisons and non-smoking prisons?

  3. Hey, you guys better not be smoking while you’re raping that guy! Keep it up and you’re gonna wind up in the hole!

  4. Smoking is a form of punishment, especially for confined nonsmokers.
    Isn’t that what prisons are for? That and man-rape.

  5. Hey, you guys better not be smoking while you’re raping that guy!

    Prison rape is a essential component of the prison experience, smoking is not.

  6. I’m actually kind of astonished that there wasn’t more of the predicted “Attica” response to this.

  7. So now that prisoners can’t smoke, they’ll live longer.

    I think the non-smoking thing was another attempt by the correctional officers union to create more jobs.

  8. Interesting, a fairly good number of smokers do so because it calms them down and helps them deal with stress better. And, maybe I’m wrong here, prison is an awful stressfull environment.

    It strikes me that I were running a facility filled with anti-social individuals with poor impulse control, the last thing I would want to do is deprive any of them of anything that might pacify them.

    Or maybe I’d just make sure their drinking water was loaded with tranquilizers. 🙂

  9. Uhh, they’re criminals. Don’t we kinda want them to voluntarily remove themselves from society permanently?

  10. Mackerel is pretty oily. I don’t know how much I’d value a can of mackerel. I’ve caught in the Gulf before, but that’s fresh mackerel. Maybe I should catch a lot of it and sell it to prison guards?

  11. I’ve caught mackerel in the Gulf before, that is.

  12. We can’t bust heads like we used to, but we have our ways. One trick is to tell ’em stories that don’t go anywhere – like the time I caught the ferry over to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe, so, I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. “Give me five bees for a quarter,” you’d say.

    Now where were we? Oh yeah: the important thing was I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn’t have white onions because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones…

  13. Are people seriously questioning how something that’s not useful can become a medium of exchange? Try eating some dollar bills or gold bullion some time.

  14. We should be forcing them to smoke pot. They need to chill the fuck out.

  15. But cans of mackerel? Why not mackerel can labels or lids?

  16. It strikes me that I were running a facility filled with anti-social individuals with poor impulse control, the last thing I would want to do is deprive any of them of anything that might pacify them.

    Un-pacified inmates might end up with a longer sentence for fighting or bad behavior, keeping the prison full.

  17. [sarcasm]Just as well prisoners can’t smoke. Why should they have more freedom than those of us outside the joint?[/sarcasm]

  18. Mackeral? Really? I would have thought itwould have something that had more of a commodity value in and of itself.

  19. Are people seriously questioning how something that’s not useful can become a medium of exchange? Try eating some dollar bills or gold bullion some time.

    I’ll agree with you on the dollar bills (which you could originally exchange for gold) not being useful but there is a myriad of useful uses for gold.

    Mackeral? Really? I would have thought itwould have something that had more of a commodity value in and of itself.

    If I remember that story correctly, mackeral was chosen because a can is pretty much worth a dollar and it’s a hard currency, nobody wants to eat the crap.

  20. I can see the Mackeral presenting some body cavity smuggling issues if ever prohibited.

    I hear tobacco is getting to be worth as much as drugs in prisons. Those places what prove you can not win the war on drugs. What better example of failure could you find besides a place where people are locked up and only cops/guards have contact and STILL they get drugs.

    Mackeral is next to go. Then watch the price of mackeral sky rocket lol.

  21. Are people seriously questioning how something that’s not useful can become a medium of exchange?

    Actually, you kind of want your medium of exchange to be something that’s not a consumable (in any meaningful way).

  22. Hey, if they can’t smoke, they can always eat the mackerel – the omega-3’s will mellow them out. Omega-3 fats are supposed to be as good as lithium.

  23. Plus the cans can be used as shivs.

  24. I started smoking e-cigs too. I seem to smoke less since I don’t “have to” smoke a whole cigarette. I am back to enjoying smoking now that I am not forced outside to smoke and not to mention it doesn’t smell at all. I tried a few brands but settled on this one since i can get the most “smoke” or vapor with it. http://greensmoke.com/indoors/

  25. Great, can we do something about the food now?

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