Thursday, October 02, 2008


De facto TPSer Thomas Johnson sends along this story about mackerel as currency in prisons from the Wall Street Journal. Everyone knows how cigarettes widely played this role for a long time-- The Shawshank Redemption even notes this-- but federal prisons banned smoking in 2004 and, with it, so went the cigarette as the spontaneously agreed-upon unit of currency.

It really fits the requirements for a good unit of currency. You can't debase the mackerel; it comes in pouches. It's small and easy to store and transport. You don't want to consume it.

The prisons are trying to keep the markets from existing; my guess is the markets are operating best where wardens have no idea they exist.

I'd presume there is some variation in what is allowed in some prisons and not in others-- the article notes that federal prisons banned smoking, maybe some state level ones don't. Could an exchange rate between mackerel and cigarettes and whatever else is used in other prisons be established? I'd love to see that. That's a great paper.

Here's another: Shocks to the mackerel system and the effect on prices in prisons? You could do shocks to mackerel substitutes as well, though in one of my favorite lines from the article:

"[Mackerel] never has done very well at all, regardless of the retailer, but it's very popular in the prisons."


Justin M Ross said...

Another article of interest for readers of prison currency may be Radford's "Economics of a POW Camp," which can be read freely here:

Andrew said...

If you are going to use my photos -

a) please dont hot link to them; host them on your own site

b) give a full link credit; they are copyrighted you cant just go around nicking them as you see fit.

Andrew Barrow

Matt E. Ryan said...

My apologies! Didn't realize mackerel pictures command a nontrivial premium. I'll change it.

Then again, to quote a professor of mine: "What's property rights among friends?"

danarch said...

Why do prisons not like the bartering system? I didn't quite catch that part. You'd think they'd be happy that the prisoners are engaging in usually legal behavior.

Matt E. Ryan said...

Well, technically, the evolution of cigarettes and mackerel (I've been loving writing that word all day today) puts the state of their economy beyond that of bartering.

But I agree, why wardens would be against this is beyond me. Perhaps it eases their acquisition of contraband? I'm fairly confident that their dislike of it isn't economics based-- it's not like we've got a bunch of Al Gores running the prisons here.

Andrew said...

no need to change it - just give due credit where it is due. It is a copyright issue, that is all.