Monday, January 7, 2019

SECRETS OF THE PRISON CAMP ECONOMY





Prisons in general are not unlike miniature civilizations. Just as ordinary citizens are grouped by race, ideology, religion and background, so too are prisoners. It is not as though the prison actually separates inmates by race-not in a camp anyway-but just as people choose their social circles outside of prison based on a whole array of criteria, so to do prisoners. And just as any functioning civilization has an economy, so does the prison system.

It is important to note that it is against prison rules for anyone to provide goods and services to another inmate for any sort of compensation, be it monetary or even sexual (hey some guys are down for a long time). Those are the official rules and actually being caught breaking such rules can result in all sorts of penalties. The reality, however, is radically different. Thea prison system has a functioning economy where many inmates provide different types of goods or services to other inmates for compensation. Some inmates decide to do this because they need money to get food from their commissary and some do it simply to pass the time. The dirty little secret of prison is, at least when it comes to a camp, that you can get almost anything you want and for a minimal amount of money have all the services of home.

Before I go into what types of good and services are sold, it is important to understand the currency system in prison. Unlike the real world, prisoners cannot carry around money with them. Being caught with cash will earn an inmate an express pass to solitary confinement. The way inmates purchase food from the commissary is by using funds sent into their account. It is sort of like a bank account that a prisoner draws on to go shopping without ever being able to touch the money. Two of the most commonly purchased items are tuna and mackerel in a pouch. These items are not purchased for consumption; rather they are purchased to act as a means of exchange. When a prisoner buys something he pays in tuna or its dollar equivalent. When I was in prison the price of a tuna pouch was $1.50 so if someone wanted to charge me $15 for something, I would have to give him 10 tunas, or 15 mackerels which cost $1 each. On the other hand, there were some items for which there was no monetary value ascribed. The cost of something would simply be a defined number of tunas or its equivalent value in commissary. For example, the cost of a cigarette was one tuna. If a prisoner did not have tuna, he would have to give the seller $1.50 in commissary money when he went shopping.

Speaking of cigarettes, anyone who has watched even one prison movie knows that cigarettes are sold in prison. The cost of one cigarette is directly tied to the degree of difficulty of obtaining it. In the higher security prisons, cigarettes need to be smuggled in either through the visiting room or through the guards who actually bring in most of the contraband for a fee. As a result, a cigarette in those prisons will cost close to $10. In a camp however, cartons of cigarettes are simply tossed over the fence by friends of the inmates and then the inmate just walks over to the fence when no one is looking and picks it up. In other words, whereas in a more secure prison, the risk surrounds obtaining it, in a camp the risk involves holding on to and hiding it. As a result, the price in camp cigarette is a fraction of a secure prison cigarette. For many inmates who are allowed to finish lengthy sentences in a camp setting, this means a serious reduction in their monthly income.

My first exposure to the prison economy came the day I arrived at the camp. Not one hour passed when a nice kid, who spoke very little English came over and after five minutes was able to tell me he was offering to do my laundry! The cost? $35 per month which included my laundry being washed, dried and folded two times a week. On one of those days he would also wash my linens and make my bed when the wash was done. All fees were to be paid in tuna. While I did not commit to avail myself of the services of this young entrepreneur, I was impressed by his assertiveness. I soon learned that the laundry business was very competitive and that if I shopped around, I would be able to lower the price!

I am not the neatest person. Don't get me wrong, dirt completely disgusts me, and I need everything around me to be clean. But when it comes to organizing my shoes, making my bed neatly, and getting rid of clutter, well let’s just say I have other strengths. Unfortunately for me, in prison your bed has to be made tightly, the area around the bed must be clear of anything and the shoes must be organized under the bed. This presented a problem. I was not going to risk being written up for my bed being made poorly. I also did not want to spend my mornings stressing over sweeping and cleaning and attempting in vain to make my bed properly. However no sooner than 12 hours after arrival was this problem solved. Another entrepreneurial fellow from Puerto Rico named Castro offered to handle all of that for me. If I wanted him to make my bed every day, the cost was eight tunas a month. If I wanted him to sweep the area, empty the trash and clean under my bed every day, that was also eight tunas a month. I could however go with the package deal and pay him 10 tunas a month and he would make my bed and clean my area every day. He would also mop once a week. 10 tunas equated to $15. So, for $15 per month I had all of this taken care of. Sold. I decided to do my own laundry for now.

Once a week we got to go shopping. The way it worked was the one quarter of the camp went each day Monday-Thursday. With 400 inmates that meant there could potentially be 100 people shopping per day. Shopping in prison is not like going to Walmart. It is more like the canteen system in summer camp. Every inmate is given a form, he fills it out, brings it to the commissary, hands it to the officer, who in turn gives it to the inmates who work in the commissary who fill the order. If an inmate is not there as soon as the commissary opens, he may be waiting well over an hour for his stuff. I did not have such patience, so I made sure to try to get there first. One time, I got there late and had to wait a very long time. Luckily, I found out there was a commissary VIP service. One of the inmates who worked there would take your list with him when he went to work in the morning. When he saw you walk in, he would fill your order before anyone else who was waiting. The cost of this service was one tuna. I figured my time, even in prison was worth more than $1.50 per hour and signed up for the VIP service. Many months later I started bunking with this fellow and was able to barter stock market lessons for free VIP service.

Before entering prison, I decided that I was going to use my time productively. I wanted to get into shape. I was always an avid runner, so it was easy to expand on that when there was not much else to do. Bulking up was another matter. I needed help in that department. Lucky for me, prison has no shortage of personal trainers. I chose one named Pete mainly because he was a nice Italian guy who got along with the Jews. For roughly 20 tunas a month, Pete would train me four days a week. He was smarter than most of the other inmates, so he preferred to be paid in cash via my commissary. As a result, I was probably the only person who would order both the kosher meals and pork every week. This was money well spent and I would say a necessity for anyone who can afford it. By the time I left prison I was in the best shape of my life. I was bench pressing close to 200 pounds and had slimmed to 155 pounds. There was not an ounce of fat on me. The only downside being that now when I go to the gym, I still think I can pay the trainer in tuna.


The food in prison is not very good or healthy. It is even worse for an inmate such as me who keeps kosher. If an inmate, particularly a kosher inmate wants to eat well, he needs to turn to other sources of food. The interesting about prison is while services such as cleaning are cheap, goods are very expensive even in a camp. It took a while, but I was eventually able to tap into alternative markets for food. The inmates who worked in various kitchens used to smuggle out and then sell all sorts of items that oddly enough never appeared on the menu. I was suddenly able to buy eggs (one tuna for three eggs), peppers cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes. Ordinary inmates were even able to buy raw chicken and meat! This was all critical as I was getting in shape. Not only was I in the best shape of my life by the time I left, I was also eating healthier and was on an all protein diet of tuna and eggs! 

For many inmates getting food solved only half of the problem. They still needed to cook it. Have no fear, prison has an abundance of chefs who will cook any and every meal. Some of the chefs would even handle the food acquisition portion while others simply worked with what was supplied. I still remember a fellow named Mario who must have been generating $2000 a month in revenue. He had his own kitchen in the back of the dorms and would cook everything from chicken parm sandwiches to burgers to pizza. He even had a kitchen staff working on the presentation! There were others who use to make yogurt. Some people made cakes and would sell slices for a tuna. There was even and old hillbilly name Chuck who had a special gnash recipe. At one point we even got it certified kosher!  If someone wanted to and had the means he could have a personal chef and actually eat quite well in prison as long as he avoided the prison food.

Eventually I decided that waiting for the washing machine and drier was not for me. Laundry started becoming a two-hour event mainly because the people with the laundry business kept on hogging the machines. Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I decided to hire McCoy as by laundry man. McCoy was a 50 something African American who had been down a long time. Aside from his being very good at his job, race played a factor. I needed to make sure that I had protection from the various cliques and gangs. I already had the Puerto Ricans covered since Castro was on the Payroll, I had the white people through Pete, and now the African Americans through McCoy. For 15 tunas a month he would do my laundry twice a week which included folding and linens. He did a much better job folding than I could which was critical because of how little space inmates had. I also had a lot of laundry since I changed three times a day. McCoy offered an ironing service if you wanted to look extra crisp for visitors. This is where I drew the line. I was not paying for ironing in prison. Some people would have their uniforms altered. Luckily there was a tailor who could perform this service. 

Anyone who had a skill set was able to generate income. There was a manicurist, a masseuse and even someone who was willing to shave your back for a tuna. There were inmates who fancied themselves prison lawyers who would type up legal briefs and even dole out legal advice. These were not lawyers by any stretch. They were simply inmates who claimed they knew how to type legal briefs. Why anyone would trust another inmate to help him get out of prison is beyond me. If he was that good, he probably would himself be out. There are plenty of prisoners who want to write a book. Unfortunately, they cannot type. There are typists who will charge a tuna per page to put handwritten notes onto a typewriter. There are inmates who are artists. For a negotiated fee, they will make something for your wife.

Of course, there is plenty of contraband. Aside for the cigarettes, there is plenty of booze ($50-$100 per bottle) and synthetic pot like k2 if an inmate wants. The real trophy is cell phones. There are a lot of cell phones and a few inmates managed to smuggle them in and would sell them. The easiest way was to get a guard on the payroll. However, like anything else plenty of phones came in simply by being thrown over the fence. I still remember one night when I walked in an saw someone facetiming his girlfriend!

So, what was my hustle? I actually did not have one. I was only going to be there for 10 months and it did not make much sense to go into business! I did however back into two businesses. The first came after I injured my elbow during one of my workout sessions with Pete. Prison healthcare is not exactly the best, so I was simply given me 800 mg Ibuprofen two times a day. After a couple of days, I was given a 30-day supply or a total of 60 pills! I had no use for so much pain medication. I quickly learned that there were plenty of inmates who wanted these pills. I decided to sell them for $5 per pill paid in tuna or any other way. I manage to sell around 20 of them which meant that for the rest of my time there my cleaning and laundry service did not actually cost me anything. I had to go to prison to become a drug dealer. Go figure.

I also managed to use my financial background to my benefit in prison. Tuna while an effective medium of exchange was useless if it was not somehow monetized. Anyone with a hustle found themselves with too much tuna and they needed to convert it into commissary money. My bunky was one such person. In addition to his VIP commissary service he also ran a small convenience store out of his locker. He always had 200-300 tunas at any time. He needed to convert it to cash so that he can go to the commissary and buy more inventory. I agreed to buy his tuna for $1.15 in commissary. I would normally buy 20 at a time so when I went shopping, I would allow him to spend $23 or so. The tuna I bought from him was able to be used to pay my vendors. What ended up happening was the following. I would buy tuna from my bunky. I would then use that tuna to pay Castro to make my bed. Castro would then go back to my bunky and buy a soda with that tuna and then my bunky would then sell me back that very tuna for $1.15! And the process would just repeat itself. I managed to figure out an arbitrage system within prison. I did have thoughts of opening a bank and arranging to hold tuna deposits and advance tuna loans, but I decided that it involved too much work for the amount of time I had remaining.

Prison, particularly prison camp, is really just a microcosm of real life. There really is a functioning economy. This is beneficial for everyone. For those with the means, it definitely improves a very unfortunate experience. For those who are willing to work, it gives them a method to earn some extra money that can be used for clothing, food or anything else. And there you have it: Prison Economics 101.

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SECRETS OF THE PRISON CAMP ECONOMY

Prisons in general are not unlike miniature civilizations. Just as ordinary citizens are grouped by race, ideology, religion and backg...