We like the idea of money. It’s much more efficient than bartering when it comes to exchanging goods and services. We’re all better off when the person in front of us at the grocery store pays with her credit card instead of goats. And when economists talk about a means of facilitating trade, bartering and money are the two most well known examples.

But for someone that’s been to prison, there’s another form of currency: violence. Violence in prison is well documented at this point. Despite what we do know about prison violence, we probably don’t understand why it happens. Someone who was in prison for ten years has an idea:

Overall, the idea is that those of us with violent histories just need to learn how to handle our emotions and control our hair-trigger tempers—we brutes reach for shanks or locks in socks solely due to our lack of restraint. That is the program’s official premise: Violence, at least a prisoner’s violence, is a lapse in self-control and a disregard for societal norms, and can therefore be “corrected.”
 
It never occurred to anyone during my ART class that violence might just be a tool for enforcing societal norms inside. In a prison economy, violence, and the ability to project violence, is what preserves the integrity of both sides of every transaction. In a prison society, violence is how prisoners sort themselves into hierarchies, the top guys distinguishing themselves by never having to employ violence themselves.

Without knowing much about prison violence myself, this is plausible.  Think about what goes on in prison as a little economy.  It’s an economy with very few resources.  Prisoners must import things like snacks, cigarettes, drugs, and magazines from the outside.  Sometimes the cost of such importing is high.  While some in prison get to work, the pay is often in cents/hour.  Trade may be facilitated in ways other than money.  The problem arises if the deal is completed or somehow is deemed unfair.

In normal society we have the threat of loss to enforce transactions.  Don’t pay in the terms of a contract?  Get sued and lose more.  Don’t pay your bills on time?  Lose your home.  Keep this up and you could lose your very freedom.  The threat of loss is what helps us keep our morals straight.  But what happens when you have nothing left to lose?  Violence may be the case.

And while at first it feels like something only prisoners must worry about, it is also an issue on the outside.  These days most of the world has access to the basic resources it needs to survive.  What happens if water, oil, or land becomes so scarce that no amount of money can facilitate trade.  Then we have nothing to lose.

I should note that the article linked above is probably the most amazing thing I’ve read this year.  The author is writing many stories about his time in prison, in which he read over 1,000 books.  He descriptions of violence as a means of facilitating a prison economy are very interesting.  This is the paragraph that hooked me (emphasis mine).

Violence is currency, as Jim knows; a glut of it causes inflation and a resultant loss in value. In the yard, the convicts nonetheless accumulated their little piles of force by building reputations. Capitalism thrives in prison despite the lack of access to conventional money. Drugs, pornography, portraits, food and services of every type are bought and sold with packs of cigarettes and stamps, the currency of exchange. But behind every transaction hung the specter of violence, whether projected through heinous personal image or maintained by a larger gang. Those who did not understand this and tried to somehow disrupt the market did not get paid, or got paid in an entirely different and profoundly unpleasant manner.
 

 

Image: Cary Bass-Deschenes

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categories: economics