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Prisoners Use Mackerel Currency
By Richard Giedroyc

Something may smell rotten, and it's not in the state of Denmark as was exclaimed by Hamlet. It may be more like the old comment from a Charlie Chan movie in which the detective says, "A bad alibi is like an dead fish. It doesn't improve with age."

If you like to collect odd and curious money, sometimes referred to as primitive money, the Oct. 2 The Wall Street Journal newspaper featured a new collectible that will be challenging to add to your collection - a mackerel.

People in detention have often been required to use special currency for many reasons. One important reason is so their "money" can't be used outside of their place of detention in case of escape or the desire to trade illegally beyond the boundaries established by their detention. This detention could be a concentration camp, political prisoner gulag, or a place for criminal incarceration. Special money has also been employed at canteens at mints so the coinage being produced at those facilities can't be used improperly by employees.

When standard coins and bank notes or their substitutes are either unavailable or are purposely limited within such confines those persons in detention often find other ways to build wealth or to trade. It's very simple and very primitive. They simple barter with whatever is available.

You might anticipate criminals in a prison setting would barter such things as cigarettes or services one inmate might perform for another inmate. What you might not expect is for the prisoners to be using "macks," that is mackerels, as a substitute for coins and bank notes.

According to the WSJ story, "Prisoners need a proxy for the dollar because they're not allowed to possess cash. Money they get from prison jobs (which pay a maximum of 40 cents an hour, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons) or family members goes into commissary accounts that let them buy things such as food and toiletries. After the smokes disappeared, inmates turned to other items on the commissary menu to use as currency."

The article continues, "Books of stamps were one easy alternative. 'It was like half a book for a piece of fruit,' says Tony Serra, a well-known San Francisco criminal-defense attorney who last year finished nine months in Lompoc on tax charges. Elsewhere in the West, prisoners use PowerBars or cans of tuna, says Ed Bales, a consultant who advises people who are headed to prison. But in much of the federal prison system, he says, mackerel has become the currency of choice."

Now, before you try to figure out how to dry a mackerel, then find a slab that can house your collectible, understand that these are not fish being pulled out of a local waterway or sewer, these are plastic-and-foil pouches of mackerel fillets provided to some U.S. prison systems by Global Source Marketing Inc.

According to the WSJ article, Global Source President Mark Muntz has acknowledged the fish are imported from Asian canneries, however his major market is U.S. prisons. Muntz is quoted in the article as saying, "We've even tried 99-cent stores. It never has done very well at all, regardless of the retailer, but it's very popular in the prisons."

Prison sources indicated the pouches are popular with wardens, since inmates might make metal cans in which fish could have been stored into weapons.

Anyone interested in the "mintage" figures for this barter item might like to know Muntz reported more than $1 million in sales to federal prison commissaries during 2007. One pouch of his mackerel costs about one dollar, making it a good exchange-friendly commodity.

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Felicia Ponce is quoted in the WSJ article as saying, "We are aware that inmates attempt to trade amongst themselves items that are purchased from the commissary." Prisoners are limited in the amount of such goods they are allowed to stockpile due to bartering, which is frowned upon.

Collectors always want to know the possibility of their collectibles in increasing in value. Power Commissary Inc. Vice President Jon Linder is quoted in the newspaper article as saying, "There are shortages worldwide in terms of the catch."

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