At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mackerel Behind Bars

By guest blogger Merrill Singer, PhD
University of Connecticut

In 2004, the government banned access to cigarettes among inmates at federal prisons (although some tobacco is still smuggled in).  This change was not driven by health issues alone.  Prior to the ban, in addition to smoking them, inmates used cigarettes as currency to acquire goods and services from other prisoners, including contraband items like drugs (possession of cash having already been banned). 

In response, in some prisons around the country, inmates turned to plastic-and-foil pouches of mackerel fillets (cans also are banned because they can be made into weapons) as the new currency. Called “macks,” they became the new coin of the realm. For example, a haircut from a fellow prisoner cost two macks (the equivalent of two dollars); laundry services also can be purchased with macks.  Why mackerel packages? Few prisoners – even new ones who traditionally have been known by the slang word “fish” – want to eat mackerel, claiming it is too oily (and perhaps unaware that mackerel is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that have been linked to multiple health benefits).  Additionally, the packages are small, can be easily transported inside a prisoner’s clothes, and have a standard size.  In short, like printed money they can readily serve as a medium of exchange and value inside the semi-closed society of a prison.

The result has been a significant increase in the sale of packaged mackerel to U.S. prisons.  To try and control the underground economy, in some prisons an inmate caught by guards with a lot of mackerel packets may be disciplined. 

One of the ironies here is that the word “mackerel” was used in the past, particularly in England, to refer to prostitutes, madams, and pimps (and suggesting someone who is smooth or slick), occupations that could land you in prison.  Once behind bars, use of drugs - available in the underground economy if you have enough macks to spend – enables inmates to get “macked up or macked out,” which the Urban Dictionary defines as seriously under the influence.
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Note from NAMA: if you are interested in more of a backstory on mackerel used in prisons, check out this Wall Street Journal story from 2008:

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