The Dark, Bizarre, Underworld Economy inside Prisons

Published by Dan Goldstraw on

The prison environment is a whole different world, with its own set of rules that apply as much to money and finance as it does anything else. These rules are, as you might expect in prison, often quite a bit more brutal and bizarre than those in your average bank branch or supermarket.

Actual money itself is, of course, not usually permitted within prison walls. However, prisoners are often given ‘stamps’ to be used to purchase certain goods, usually paid for either through work done by prisoners, or by family and friends on the outside. Nevertheless, these stamps rarely extend to more than $300 and are not exchangeable between prisoners. It is much more interesting therefore to look at the various goods which are often used instead of money, since these can be transferred between prisoners however they like and are, given the restrictions of prison life, often far more valued than they would be in the outside economy.

Some of these alternative ‘currencies’ are of the sort you would expect. The image of prisoners trading cigarettes for favours or other goods is pretty well founded, with them being highly valued inside. Their value has only gone up following bans or restrictions on them in many US prisons over the last few years. The greater value they’ve achieved due to their prohibition means that cigarettes have in many ways replaced hard drugs as the chief racket of prison gangs and dealers. They’re also a good way for organisations like the Mafia to make a profit. Just one, single, solitary cigarette can often go for as much as $20 in some US prisons, and a pack of them can cost up to $200. According to The Daily Beast, pouches of tobacco which, outside prison would only be worth around $3 can be worth as much as $600 on the inside.

Cigarettes are in fact more popular than many other illegal drugs with prisoners trading marijuana, as well as food stamps and other goods and services, for tobacco. Drugs still have their place and are highly valued often going for a much higher price than they would outside. Its inaccessibility means marijuana is worth ten times its value outside with crystal meth being worth the equivalent of thousands of dollars.

Sometimes to get an item you want,  alternative means of payment can, as is to be expected in prisons, get pretty nasty. All kinds of things might be demanded in return for something, whether that be sexual favours, or a ‘hit’ on someone. And of course, if someone doesn’t pay up after purchasing whatever it is they’re after, violence is often the way of incurring such debts.

All these alternative forms of payments are probably what would spring to the minds of most people when thinking of how someone pays for goods or favours in prison. However, there are also more bizarre, unexpected forms of payment. Given the increased scarcity of cigarettes in many American prisons these days, other, more surprising goods have come to be exchanged and bartered over. Postage stamps are one such highly prized good. The thought of prisons being full of enthusiastic stamp collectors might seem like an odd idea. But stamps can be a form of legal tender, and, being small and lightweight, it’s easy to carry around and exchange a lot of them at a time. Coffee is also a big seller, since it provides a moderate buzz and is cheaper and easier to get your hands on than drugs. Cheap food stuffs are also highly prized. Ramen noodles are, according to the American Sociological Association, increasingly being used as an alternative form of currency; and can pay for laundry, for your cell being cleaned, a haircut, or even as bets in gambling.

Mackerel also makes it onto the list. Yes, the fish. Smoked or unsmoked? I’m not quite sure but a pouch of the stuff can go for $1.40. This is valued more than other foodstuffs because apparently it doesn’t spoil that easily. If you don’t take it out of its pouch it won’t go bad for a while. But of course there is another, darker reason why this, initially comic seeming currency, might be prized in the first place. Food stuffs like Ramen and Mackerel have become so valued because of the abysmal state of the food provided by many prisons. Budget cuts have meant prisons are increasingly forced to make savings. And, of course, the first place where they will be cutting costs is in the resources that go to prisons. The food provided in many prisons has been increasingly lessened and is often of much lower quality. As a result, there is suddenly a much more desperate demand for other, more sustaining foods. Stuff like Ramen, which is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, has gained such value that it is now used as an alternative form of currency in the underground markets of prison.

You can expect more oddball items to gain value in the future as further cuts come into force, but the cigarette stays top of the prison food chain.


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