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.