Artifact of the Month: North Carolina Prison Dept. tokens

The Artifact of the Month for November comes from the North Carolina Prison Department. Several patrons donated a total of ten Prison Department tokens to the NCC Gallery. Supposedly used between 1930 and 1970, the tokens were provided to prisoners in the North Carolina state prison system as canteen money for the purchase of cigarettes, magazines, toiletries, and other personal items from prison shops and commissaries. Donors believe the officially sanctioned form of currency in the state’s prisons established financial equity amongst the inmates because the amount of individual wealth in “the real world” was negated. The tokens also helped prevent inmates from bribing guards to obtain items unavailable in the prisons.

A current employee of the North Carolina Division of Prisons described the current state institutions as “a cashless society.” Nevertheless, popular culture has consistently maintained that the cigarette serves as a form of currency within American correctional institutes, especially as state legislatures progressively ban them in prisons. Recent articles claim that objects ranging from honey buns and cans of mackerel to the use of contraband cellphones possess the most influence for bartering.

The ten tokens ranging in denominations worth 1¢ to $1.00 highlight one of the NCC Gallery’s collection strengths: numismatics. The Gallery holds a large assortment of bank notes, coins, tokens, and scrip. Some of the collection has been digitized for the Historic Moneys of North Carolina digital exhibit.

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