Canned mackerel is one of my favorite varieties of canned fishand it is a valuable addition to any meal – but some people place a very different value on it than I do. Wall Street Journal reports that Sam Bankman-Fried, convicted of fraud in the collapse of the FTX cryptocurrency exchangeabandoned his Silicon Valley coin of your choice and are spending it with a different type of currency: packaged mackerel. It turns out that in the US prison system, mackerel is a common substitute for money.
Why mackerel is valuable in prison
Imagine two people negotiating in prison and your mental image of the exchange will probably involve a sneaky delivery of cigarettes. But it’s 2023, and cigarettes have long been banned in U.S. prisons (since 2006, when they were removed from the commissary shelves). Still, prisoners need something to negotiate goods and services within the prison system, and that’s where mackerel comes in.
WSJ explains that mackerel has become the preferred currency since the cigarette ban. Bags of fish, available for purchase from the prison commissary, are often worth as much as money. They are called “macks,” and it was reported that Bankman-Fried exchanged some packages with an inmate in exchange for a haircut before his sentencing trial.
Bankman-Fried is currently housed in the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, whose commissioner’s inventory (ace of 2020at least) includes various food items such as summer sausages, blocks of Velveeta, sweets, packaged meals and bags of fish, not only mackerel but also tuna in two varieties (pure white chili sauce and Thai chili sauce).
Tea Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) explains which, since mackerels have long been worth about $1 at the grocery store and are generally unpopular as food, are a good substitute for cigarettes as currency.
FEE quotes one video per podcast Wall and transmission in which inmates explain how mackerel work as currency. One prisoner expressed it this way:
Mackerel had utility because it was inherently inflationary. A certain number of Macks entered circulation every day. Each inmate can only buy 14 mackerel per week. 14 times 500 prisoners times 52 weeks is the amount of mackerel that comes into circulation every year, which is why it was a very good stable monetary value.
And because mackerel is not food, it does not leave the internal prison economy, continuing to circulate as money.
I usually keep a few cans of mackerel at home in the pantry for when I’m hungry and don’t want to worry about heating anything up. But I never knew that this rich, oily fish had underlying value for so many people. It makes me appreciate my delicious yet simple lunch that much more.