Prisoners Once Used Cigarettes to Pay for Goods and Services. Now They’re Using Fish


prison currency cigarettes

If you ever watched The Night OfOrange Is the New Black, or any television show set in prison, then you know money is hard to come by behind bars. Instead of trading actual cash for “goods and services,” American prisoners use a different type of currency. Since cash is no good when you can’t really spend it anywhere, acquiring goods and bartering with them is the next best thing.

For the longest time, prison inmates bought and sold goods and “services” for cigarettes, as they were hard to come by and took the edge off the grueling prison life for a moment. Since cigarettes were banned from prisons in 2014, prisoners started using instant ramen as currency, as it is equally hard to acquire (and equally bad for you). Recently, however, prisoners are using a new and offbeat currency to buy and sell things within their institution: mackerel.

The podcasters at Wall and Broadcast recently spoke to two inmates — one recently released and one recently incarcerated — about how the mackerel economy actually works within the prison walls. What they learned was not unlike any other world currency…except it was a bit slimier.

Mackerel is unique when compared to cigarettes and instant ramen as it has an expiry date. While cigarettes and ramen could go stale, they’re still worth their full value. Expired mackerel, or “money mackerel,” however, is worth less than “food mackerel,” but still an exchangeable currency. You just don’t want to be the person with all the expired fish in the end.