Mackerel economics in prison

Today's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article about "macks," tins of mackerel that are commonly used for bartering in prison. Macks took over around 2004 when smoking bans in federal prison knocked out the previous currency: packs of cigarettes. From the WSJ:
Unlike... more expensive delicacies, former prisoners say, the mack is a good stand-in for the greenback because each can (or pouch) costs about $1 and few -- other than weight-lifters craving protein -- want to eat it.

So inmates stash macks in lockers provided by the prison and use them to buy goods, including illicit ones such as stolen food and home-brewed "prison hooch," as well as services, such as shoeshines and cell cleaning...

There are other threats to the mackerel economy, says (Jon) Linder, of (supplier) Power Commissary. "There are shortages world-wide, in terms of the catch," he says. Combined with the weak dollar, that's led to a surging mack. Now, he says, a pouch of mackerel sells for more than $1 in most commissaries.

Another problem with mackerel is that once a prisoner's sentence is up, there's little to do with it -- the fish can't be redeemed for cash, and has little value on the outside. As a result, says Mr. Levine, prisoners approaching their release must either barter or give away their stockpiles.
Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets


  1. I’ve heard that canned French sardines get better with age, so they’d “appreciate” — but only if you actually meant to eat them.

  2. I was just released from the Colorado Department of Corrections in April, and while the mackerel was popular for eating (especially amongst the “Paisas” or Mexican Nationals), the currency used most was a combination of stamps and tokens (tokens were coins sold by the prison which could be used in the vending machines at the facility.)

    Note that I was in a white-collar, minimum-security facility, so this may be different at some of the more… intense… prisons.

  3. “……can’t be redeemed for cash, and has little value on the outside.”

    Not unlike the problem with converting US Dollars to Euros eh?

  4. Hmmm, during my time on the inside (go War on Drugs!) the most easily bartered good was Ramen noodles (called soups), which were 2 for $1, or abouts. It was what the chips converted to when we played poker, but that’s about as far as I ever got in dealing with prison bartering for contraband.

  5. Okay, if no one actually wants to eat the mackerel, why exactly do they have any trade value? At least with something like cigarettes and soups you can see the widespread appeal of the product, and thus the tangible benefits to having a stockpile on hand . . .

  6. #3: I’ve heard that canned French sardines get better with age

    This makes me imagine a handful of inmates sitting around in snobbish poses and almost-British accents saying “Did you ever have any of that 1964 Pilchard? Absolutely terrific, I tell you. That ’64 was a very good year”.

  7. >>10

    Or a sushi bar…mackerel isn’t that great by itself but saba nigiri is one of my personal favorites (of course, everyone prefers unagi and inari for perfectly understandable reasons)

  8. Crunchbird @9:

    /They/ don’t have to want to eat them. It merely needs to be the case that /someone/ wants to eat them.

    Pull a dollar bill out of your wallet.

    Do you want to eat /that/? No? Yet you can still get food out of it – because someone else wants that dollar; Usually they want it because it cost them less than a dollar all-told to get that food to you.

  9. I just see a little thought bubble above imprisoned Homer Simpson’s head:

    “Idiot…Mackerel can be exchanged for goods and services.”

  10. That’d be no good for me. I’d just eat them. They tast great, lots of protien etc. I could probably live on mackerel and brown rice.

  11. #16: Call your congresspeople and tell them to vote against the bailout. How can we trust Fish & Wildlife Director Dale Hall with 700 billion mackerels, no strings attached? We need sunlight on this! (Well, not literally, the fish would probably get a little stinky.)

  12. Makerel cans weigh about 4.3oz
    Can dimensions are roughly 104 mm Long x 59 mm Width x 28 mm Height

    Stacked, 700 billion cans would create a tower 19,600,000 kilometers tall. While this isn’t enough to reach, say, Mars, you could get to the moon – 49 times.

    The weight of 700 billion cans is approximately 8.53320646 × 10^10 kilograms or 85 million metric tons – equivalent to the mass of 2.5 Three Gorges Dam(s)

  13. In what sort of prison does one have any desire or need for a “shoeshine?” Unless that’s some sort of euphemism…

  14. >6: soups

    Yup, at Marion County CCA ramen packages “soups” were the currency. They had these nissan chile ramens that have only recently become available outside.
    I’m a vegetarian and CCA wouldn’t feed me, so bartering or playing chess for soups helped keep me alive – lost 15 pounds in 3 weeks.

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