Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Cancer Sticks in the Clink

January 4th, 2011 · 7 Comments

One of my favorite economics story of the millennium is the Wall Street Journal‘s 2008 A-head about the use of tinned mackerel as prison currency. It’s a fantastic testament to the primacy of money; even when removed from ordinary society, humans always find a way to regulate their commerce by creating tangible symbols of achievement. When I initially read the piece, I could only think of the cover of the Federal Reserve’s infamous (but strangely awesome) The Story of Money comic book. The four-paneled illustration seems to be making the argument that bartering is a relic of our cavepeople past, and that currency is a hallmark of civilization.

The mackerel story surprised because it seemed to illustrate a shift in prison economics akin to America’s changeover from the gold standard. Cigarettes have traditionally been the currency of choice for the incarcerated, partly because, when push comes to shove, such “money” can be consumed like a commodity. The mackerel can, too. at least in theory, but the inmates would prefer not to; the WSJ makes clear that the fishy treat is universally unbeloved in prison, and so the vast majority of cans are never popped open.

Mackerel became money after prisons started cracking down on tobacco use, but cigarettes have by no means disappeared as a form of alternative currency. The bans have simply pushed the cigarette trade deeper underground, as explained in Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em: Cigarettes in U.S. Prisons and Jails. The paper points out that cigarettes, like gold bullion in the outside world, remain a highly prized fallback currency because, presumably unlike mackerel, they have great value beyond their functional role in the prison economy. And the official crackdown on tobacco has forced inmates to engage in riskier behavior in order to maintain their “wealth”:

Just as the criminalization of cocaine and heroin gives rise to impure drugs and a scarcity of sterile drug paraphernalia, cigarettes sold on the black market are often more harmful than those sold legally and are combined with less healthy smoking practices. For instance, because rolling papers were scarce, some inmates resorted to rolling tobacco with toilet paper wrappers or with pages from a Bible. Both contain ink or dyes that are harmful when burned. Also, inmates reported removing the filters on manufactured cigarettes to increase the potency of each drag of tobacco. Furthermore, inmates who might otherwise have smoked a lower tar cigarette had little choice but to smoke higher tar cigarettes.

I’d love to have a moment to calculate the health-care costs associated with the outlawing of tobacco in American correctional facilities. My hunch is that prison officials would be better advise to regulate the market, given that bootleg cigarettes may cause long-term health problems that may eventually become the government’s burden. Is there a lesson to be learned here about drug policy in the world outside the prison walls?

Update Edited this post to get rid of numerous logic and grammatical errors. Sorry, just getting back into the swing after the holidays. As a token of penance, check out this great photo of Tajik goat polo.


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7 Comments so far ↓

  • ADW

    Cigarettes will always be valuable currency, which is why I have a carton in my earthquake kit. And, though, I no longer indulge, but I might be moved to should the earth shift…not cough…you know, the big one. I’m thinking back to Hurricane Katrina and a picture of a man rowing through the water with a cig dangling from his mouth.

    It would be interesting to get a breakdown of how the cigs find their way in, who controls the market, and the value of each stick. I suspect it’s fascinating.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @ADW: If you can get around the paywall, the “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” study is worth a read. It contains a pretty level-headed analysis of how cigarettes are smuggled into institutions, as well as data on per-unit value. Here’s one snippet I thought about citing:

    “One particular inmate’s hustle, to roll loose tobacco into cigarettes, clearly illustrates the value of cigarettes and how cigarettes can circulate within a jail or prison economy. In one prison, a 6-oz can of loose tobacco sold for $4, and the buyer would pass it to an inmate who was highly skilled at rolling cigarettes. Using 4 oz of tobacco, he rolled 200 cigarettes, the equivalent of 10 packs of cigarettes, and he kept the remaining 2 oz as payment for his labor. He then rolled the extra tobacco into 100 additional cigarettes. Because his cigarettes were so skillfully rolled, other inmates were often willing to trade a pack of 20 cigarettes, valued at $2, for his 100 cigarettes. He then traded packs of cigarettes for commissary items. This inmate, who also worked a night job as a janitor, rolled between two and seven cans of tobacco per day. Whereas his janitor job paid only $16.50 per month, he earned the equivalent of $4 to $14 per day rolling cigarettes. Although rolling and exchanging tobacco was forbidden under the institution’s rules, this inmate was able to succeed because the dorm officers often looked the other way.”

  • ADW

    Huh. Interesting. Hustle and skill. I suppose, also, that such a skill goes a long way toward ensuring the inmate’s security. Who’s going to screw with the inmate who can so carefully roll such a beautiful cig? All that practice with zig-zags and phillies is useful after all.

    Thanks for this. I don’t doubt the importance of cigarettes in any market – wartime, natural disaster, and prison. This would make a fascinating documentary that I would pay to see. I suspect others would too. As harmful as they are, cigs remain common ground across the globe.

  • Miscellaneous Prison-related Reading « Prison Law Blog

    […] Brendan Koerner’s Microkhan blog on prison economies of canned mackerel and cigarettes. […]

  • Miscellaneous Prison-related Reading « Prison Law Blog

    […] Brendan Koerner’s Microkhan blog on prison economies of canned mackerel and cigarettes. […]

  • JN

    Came over via the Prison Law Blog and I’m glad I did. I look forward to reading the linked article this afternoon.

    This article on Honey Buns as a currency in Florida prisons might also be of interest:

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @JN: Glad to have you, and thanks for the Honey Buns link. Just started reading it, and love the way the writer kicks out of the first section:

    “Maybe considering the honey bun can help us understand life behind bars.”