Prison Economy… the economy in prison is basically just a mirror reflection on that of the streets. Instead of paper money and debit cards this economy still functions on the old platform of a barter system. The trading of goods for other goods or services…

The knowledge of this system and how it works is important to understanding your environment, creating your own niche as well as to establish some sense of those creature “comforts” we seek. And this begins (generally) when you ride into a new prison… you want to locate a “good” laundry man, who the “store man” is, are there any good guys, and guys in the kitchen. At least for me these are the things you 1st try and establish. Of course, you have many whose concerns lean more to the drink, drugs, tattoos and gambling. It all depends on your preferences and priorities.

See, years back the prisoners were allowed to govern themselves in almost all areas…. from work assignments, cell moves, classes and certificates, call-outs for activities and general preferential treatment. There was a monetary value attached to all these things… this was known, understood and kept things moving smoothly. Of course, the newer prison administrations disagreed and drastically cut any or all prisoner involvement in these areas. This had 2 negative affects… 1) it interrupted crucial areas of the economy and the cash flow, that was created; and 2) it placed the responsibility back in the hands of staff who didn’t want the extra work in the 1st place.

So now some of the corner stones to this economy working properly and smoothly are:

  1. Laundry men: these are the prisoners responsible for washing our state-issued and personal clothing. Now of course you can throw one a few dollars a month and you can get a more personal touch to your laundering needs. (I highly recommend this!)
  2. Hobbycraft: these guys are also essential, to a lot of us who have kids, spouses, loved ones, etc… whom we wish to send greeting cards to, for Birthdays, Holidays, Anniversaries… pretty much every Hallmark moment imaginable. Of course, some use them as a creative opener to ask for some more money from home. Besides cards… some guys do portraits, paintings, crocheting (stuffed animals, scarves, blankets, etc.), bead work and any number of very creative things with some simple paper, popsicle sticks and glue. You’d be amazed at some of the creations, that they can come up with… cabins, jewelry boxes, figurines, motorcycles… it’s almost endless, to the imagination.
  3. “Hustle man”: there is usually (at least) 1 of these guys, at any prison you go to. This is the guy who can take one man’s junk and convince another that it can be his treasure. He usually finds items or is commissioned by others to sell some items as quickly as possible. After a small tax for himself of course. He’s like a walking “swap meet” which is very helpful at times when you might need to find some very random thing. You might need a new belt buckle or headphone extension… he probably has them or knows where to find them. Only bad thing is that, it’s an “as-is” sale and most seem too good to be true (meaning they probably are). Now, that leads us into another essential person…
  4. Fix-it guy: this is the guy who’ll fix your headphones when they short-out, work on your TV, when it gets to messin’ up… or go back and fix one of those “too good” of deals you just got off the “hustle man”. These guys are definitely, in demand cause imagine your TV goes out… even if you can afford to spend $150 on another TV that order process can take anywhere from 1 month to 2 months to receive it. That’s a long time to go without. Or you can throw the fix it guy a couple bucks and he can jerry-rig that back to working order, for a while at least.
  5. Chefs: these guys are even more important, since the introduction of these PRIVATIZED food services and even since it’s gone back to the Dept. The meals we’re provided are sub-par, at best! (Our once described “cooked chicken pieces” are labeled as “chicken SHAVINGS” on the box they arrive in! YUCK) So, these are the guys, who stand at the microwaves all day and knock out: personal pizzas; $1.00 burritos; nacho platters; pies they create from kool-aid, cookies and creamer; fudge, suckers, taffy… any # of things. Really it’s only limited to the imagination and creativeness of the cook! Some guys just cook for others… in return they get a bowl to eat as well. This is another hustle that leads us into yet another important factor in this system…
  6. Store man: this has been a go-to for me over the years. And like the necessity of a bank or other lender in the streets a store man is a crucial element to the function of the prison economy. They provide a lending service generally at a 50% mark-up (this rate of mark-up is justified… due to the risk of lock-ups, transfers and length of time you wait. Because store comes every 2 weeks). An example of this is if you come and borrow 2 coffees then on store day you give 3 coffees back. Guys might get hungry and wanna cook-up a meal or just snack. Then you got others who might wanna pay for some of the previous services mentioned who don’t have the money until store. And now a days you have a lot of guys who live on state-pay to state-pay (that is around the 15th of the month) basically, living check to check, in the world.

Now a lot of staff who understand that things run better when they allow us to “jail”… tend to show leniency on this practice. They know this is necessary and going to be there… plus store guys often prevent more problems than they create. By helping people pay off some commitments they have to less-friendly debtors.

These are some of the services that a lot of us choose to use… that also help the community. You have those guys who wash food dishes, after guys cook; the guys who iron clothes; who wash shoes. You have those guys who run out and get the phones, for guys; or the weights, in the weight pit, for others to use. Basically, anything you do, can have a tax affixed to the end of it.

Those are all some key components, of a properly functioning prison economy. Also, for the most part, one’s that are viewed in a different light than some more nefarious elements… these are also going to be there, but bring way more b.s., way more hassle and way more negative attention!

These are drugs, gambling, tattooing, making “spud” juice (or prison alcohol)… then you have those who continue to victimize others (even in here), by stealing or squeezing those that are deemed as weaker. (squeezing or pressing is just basically extorting others). The major downsides, to these are that staff and administration have, pretty much, a zero tolerance to these… so the hassle is excessive and gains are usually short-lived. Also, the “heat” that comes, from staff, is generally frowned upon by others who are trying to “jail”… just bad for business, across the board! Also, the character of some involved, especially in drugs, are less than honorable, and integrity is almost unheard of. These guys tend to rack up debt, then just lock-up and tell (then relocate and do it all over again)… thus creating financial burdens and creating circumstances, for those individuals to become targeted by staff.

Realistically, almost everything in prison has had a monetary value placed on it, at one time or another. EVERYTHING! These are all common known factors of prison… you can watch any show on TV, now a days, and see all the things I’ve been talking about. All these things help the economy move, in here… creating income for some, comfort for others and a sense of real community to many!

Until next time,

Michael Bowman

Source of featured image: Flickr

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