Coin Lore column from Aug. 15, 2016, Weekly issue of Coin World:
If you could write with your change in Columbus, Ohio, you knew were
the coins came from — the Ohio Penitentiary.
Prisoners at the Pen with too much time on their hands and mischief
in their minds often used materials at hand to make their own versions
of U.S. coins.
Some of the fakes were smuggled out by on-the-take guards and others
were paid out in change at a gift shop where prisoners sold crafts and
trinkets for years. Some of the phony coins were lead and could be
used to write.
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In 1939, convict counterfeiting was front-page news as a new warden
cracked down on corruption and crime.
“Prison Counterfeiting To Be Probed By Federal Agent,” The Columbus
Evening Dispatch blared March 8, 1939. Subheads declared, “Bogus Coins
Turned Out Behind Walls, Acting Warden Finds” and “Nickels, Dimes,
Quarters and Half Dollars Put Into General Circulation.”
Prisoners weren’t allowed to have cash. Ledgers were used to keep
track of commissary purchases, money families deposited in prisoner
accounts and money prisoners earned working at various prison
enterprises. But money found a way in, often aided by guards who took
a 10 to 25 percent cut.
One of the first things the new warden did was demand that all money
be turned in, with the take credited to each prisoner’s account.
Over two days, prisoners turned in more than $1,500 and
inadvertently tipped the authorities to the counterfeiting operation.
The Dispatch reported, “Acting Warden William F. Amrine revealed
that counterfeiting of coins had been going on within the walls and
that some 900 bogus dimes had been trucked out of the prison and
placed in general circulation.
“The acting warden said the dimes had been taken from the prison
‘some time ago’ on a truck.”
Each dime was worth about $1.75 in today’s money.
Amrine said fake nickels, dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars
“were made from materials obtained inside the walls.”
“The prisoners’ counterfeiting activities produced some coins
considered good semblances of mint-milled money, while others were
very crude. All could easily be detected by their dull ‘ring’ when
dropped,” Amrine said.
The Pen, which operated from 1834 to 1984, was home to several
famous prisoners, including Confederate raider John Morgan, author O.
Henry, and Sam Shephard, the real-life “Fugitive.”
The prison was razed in 1989.