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The Cost of Doing Business in America's Prisons

What do whales' teeth, cowrie shells, Cognac, large stone disks, and foil packets of mackerel have in common? The perhaps surprising answer is that they have all been used as units of currency in vastly differing societies at drastically different times.

The exchange of goods through barter has doubtless gone on since humans were first able to communicate with one another. The trickier problem of trading when one party lacks a commodity the other requires was greatly helped in the 7th century B.C. when the Lydians of Anatolia produced the first coins -- bean-shaped ingots of electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver) certified as authentic by punch marks. Of course, it took millennia for coins, and later banknotes, to be accepted around the world. In the meantime, the Fijians stuck with their whales' teeth, and the Indians with their cowrie shells. On the Pacific island of Yap, the ownership of large stone disks was traded for goods and services.

Money has served us well, but sometimes unconventional alternatives have their place. If you want to secure yourself a few grams of the best mail order china white (a form of heroin), or put a hit on your mother-in-law, pulling out your credit card or mailing a check is probably not the best idea. As federal prosecutors closed in on and finally shut down the shady online trading site Silk Road, the American public began to hear about Bitcoin, the anonymous online currency that has subsequently had banks, businesses, and regulators fretting about how to, and if they even should, deal with it.

In the United States, the great bastion of capitalism, some 2.3 million individuals lack access to dollars and cents for their daily transactions, and so have reverted back to those pre-coinage days, in the process coming up with some unusual currencies. According to http://prisonlawblog.com, for most inmates of state and federal prisons, the mere possession of money or currency is a breach of disciplinary rules, punishable by a loss of earned good time credits toward early release; disciplinary transfer, usually to a higher security institution; loss of privileges such as phone calls, visits, or commissary shopping; or other sanctions (e.g., solitary confinement). Prisoners may have money held in a trust account to be used for phone calls, commissary purchases, and other officially sanctioned activities, but they must be more creative in finding ways to pay for inmate-provided goods and services.

Such goods and services are surprisingly diverse. With mess hall meal fare generally pretty grim, there is a thriving industry in "homemade" food: fried wraps, both sweet and savory; pizzas; and nacho bowls. Cheesecakes are particularly popular. Naturally, some of the raw ingredients for these culinary delicacies must be "liberated" from the prison's kitchen, often requiring payments to both the light-fingered liberator and the mule who carries the items out. Part of the reason that prison food tastes so bland is that most of the ingredients that might give it some taste -- onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, chilies, cheeses, seasonings -- are pillaged from the kitchen at such a fierce rate.

As inmates are typically allowed to shop at the commissary only once a week, most housing units will have one or more "stores" where commissary items, especially those of a sweet and sticky Little Debbie variety, are available at a fifty to one hundred percent premium. Electronic items, such as radios and headphones, usually must be made of clear plastic so nothing can be concealed inside them. This, and the fact that they are often of low quality, means that they break easily, creating a demand for protective, hand-made cases, usually of leather or fabric, and also for repairs. Wealthier inmates might contract out domestic chores such as cell cleaning, washing, and ironing. Some take idleness to the extreme, paying others to take their clothes to the laundry or hold their place in a line. Simple supply and demand in action, just in a correctional context.

One inmate talks of paying three cigarettes and a cold soda each week to have someone hold his place in the line for commissary. Prison-brewed hooch comes at a significantly higher price, and those with a sizeable gambling habit can quickly burn through copious amounts of the local currency. For those who run up too large a debt, a loan-shark may be able to provide a helping hand, for a fee. Tens of thousands of dollars can change hands for those entwined in gambling debts.

In order to facilitate all these transactions, various currencies have sprung up, some ubiquitous, others locale-based. According to http://prisoneducation.com, postage stamps are used almost universally in state and federal prisons. Those still serviceable for postage are known in prison parlance as "mailers," change hands at three for a dollar. Fifteen mailers, or five dollars? worth, constitute a "book" of stamps, the unit in which higher value items are priced. Once battered beyond conventional use, they become lower value "compound stamps." Gambling chips are often quartered playing cards, certified with a signature or mark, reminiscent of Lydian electrum. In those institutions that still permit smoking, cigarettes form a ready currency, either singularly or in packs (called "bricks," a term related to a kilo of cocaine). Smaller transactions might be paid for in packets of Ramen Noodle soup at a quarter a piece.

In prison, as in any society, commerce is an inevitable fact of life. Whatever rules may be put in place, whatever fluctuations in money supply or devaluations may occur (e.g., the cost of an item used for currency going up), alternative currencies will be found to lubricate the wheels of commerce. In the aftermath of World War II, hyperinflation left the Deutschemark virtually worthless. For a time, enterprising Germans turned to cigarettes and Cognac as a pseudo-currency.

In one prison with strict enforcement of rules governing the number of postage stamps inmates may possess, foil packs of mackerel were adopted as an esoteric currency, each having a one dollar value. For higher value transactions, packs of tuna were preferred due to their higher value and smaller pack size, making them easier to store in larger amounts. A locker full of fish is easier to explain than a mattress full of stamps. This Flintstone-like currency has the added bonus of being edible, of course.

Of course, large stores of any currency need to be carefully guarded against loss, and in prison there are no sureties. Inmates with the largest stashes, usually those running a gambling pool or selling drugs, typically have high enough status in the prison pecking order to avoid being robbed by fellow convicts. A far more significant risk comes from prison guards shaking down a cell, either randomly or after a tip-off from a snitch, perhaps someone seeking to avoid paying a large debt. With few places to hide contraband, a bulging mattress might reveal several thousand dollars? worth of stamps.

American state and federal governments spend around sixty billion dollars each year on corrections, making the prison industrial complex a vast market for goods and services. Meanwhile, inside our prisons is an economy in miniature, albeit one with a population the same size of those of Latvia, Slovenia, Botswana, or Kuwait. Prisons provide a more humble marketplace in which manufacturers, merchants, and service providers ply their trades for the reward of a few stamps, some cigarettes, or maybe a foil packet of fish.

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Updated May 10, 2017 9:56 AM EDT | More details

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