Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Friday, June 1, 2007


Smoking was banned in all federal prisons in 2004 (except for staff, who can smoke in designated outdoor areas. If movies are to be believed, cigarettes functioned as a form of currency.

Money is disallowed in prison. Indeed it is a violation of BOP rules to give, borrow or sell any item or service to another inmate. This must surely be the most widely violated rule in prison. While I understand the purpose of the rule, it is impossible to function practically without some prison economy, which necessarily involves an exchange of items or services. Where an economy exists, something inevitably will function as a form of currency.

Believe it or not, the new currency is mackerel, that is, fish bait. A can of mackerel can be purchased for $1.20 in the commissary.

I don't know the going rate for very many services but I know the standard rate for a haircut is 2 cans. In addition, some rooms agree to contribute 2 cans per inmate per month to pay someone to clean their room every day (instead of each roommate taking a turn.)

Some inmates literally have no one on the outside to fund their commissary account. And you only make about $17/month working. Therefore, they basically will offer their services in exchange for mackerel, which they can then offer to another inmate to purchase items from the commissary for them.

Most of these kinds of exchanges are harmless at worst and helpful at best. Thus, as long as they are handled discreetly, the COs don't go on witch hunts looking for violations.

While I have not witnessed it, I am told there are more sinister exchanges. The worst being when one inmate extorts goods or services from another with physical threats. I think this is more an issue in higher security prisons than the camps where physical violence is rare.

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