The underground economy in prison is way more sophisticated than you might think.
Inmates aren’t allowed to carry cash. What they earn from prison jobs goes into commissary accounts, which allows prisoners to buy better food and other personal care items from the prison store.
There are other currencies, though. One of the most popular items is mackerel — or “mack” in prison lingo — which costs about $1.47 a can at the commissary, according to Michael Smith Baker, an inmate at New York Department of Correction.
Baker was featured on Wall & Broadcast Wednesday, a podcast hosted by TABB Group COO Alex Tabb and Vested CEO Dan Simon.
“I’ve seen some of the craziest stuff used as currency,” Baker said, citing stamps and potato chips in addition to mackerel. The highest value currency in prison is marijuana, Baker said.
“Let’s say I have an ounce of marijuana. I am the man, do you understand. I am the man, and I put prices on my product … I tell people, listen, I want all your phone calls for a week, or I want $50 in commissary,” he said.
A joint might cost 3 cans of mack, or around $5.
“Nobody actually sits there does the maths,” Baker said. “Nobody’s gonna say you owe me 37 cents, cause I’m gonna smoke that joint.”
While Baker doesn’t keep a ledger because he does transactions on a personal basis, gangs have a more structured approach. Typically, the gang leader appoints people who are responsible for education, economics, sacrifice (“the Kamikaze”) and security.
The person who is in charge of economics will go out, distribute drugs, keep a loan book and report back to the leader. “If you don’t know how to add before prison, you know how to add now,” Baker said.