Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Markets Everywhere: How Fish, Coffee, and Honey Buns Became Cash in Prisons

This interesting piece from Wired describes how fish and coffee became units of currency in a prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania:
Nothing makes you more powerful inside the joint than a strong grounding in currency arbitrage. Inmates in federal penitentiaries aren’t allowed to have actual money; family members can load up prison commissary accounts, which usually max out at about $300 a month, but the money’s not transferable and can be redeemed only at the commissary. And cigarettes, the former gold standard for securing everything from a bodyguard to starched laundry, have all but disappeared since tobacco was banned at federal pens in 2004. So inmates have to rely on other forms of currency. All of which means the prison economy runs much like a commodities market: Money in a commissary account can’t be traded, but goods sold at the commissary can be. And since the amounts in circulation are tightly regulated, their value can far surpass their price in dollars.
And here are the top currency items in the Lewisburg, PA prison:

That is:
  1. Mackerel (never spoils if unopened)
  2. Instant Coffee (the only way to get buzzed)
  3. Stamps (no email = snail mail only)
  4. Combination lock (keeps stuff safe; lock + sock = decent weapon, in a pinch)
Apparently, the currency of choice varies by prison, however. The currency of choice in Florida prisons? Honey buns.

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