The Wall Street Journal, possibly anticipating the legal fallout of the nation’s financial collapse, goes to prison in order to investigate the stuff of which jailbird deals are made. And that stuff turns out to be … plastic and foil packages of mackerel, a dark and oily fish typically of Asian origin. Says the Journal:

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.

Unlike those more expensive delicacies, former prisoners say, the mack is a good stand-in for the greenback because each can (or pouch) costs about $1 and few people—other than weightlifters craving protein—want to eat it.

So the Journal dives into the whole crazy underworld of prison economics, checking out high-stakes poker games (dozens of mackerel packets on the line!), fish hoarders, and the sticky problem of how to cash out several hundred pouches of somewhat nasty-tasting fish when you’ve finally served your time. It’s an insanely taut and entertaining read and, thankfully, doesn’t have a danged thing to do with Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, or Lehman Brothers.

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