Prison has it's own economy and it is booming! Goods and services are bought and sold everyday. Here's how!
I have written earlier about the resourcefulness of inmates and not only their desire to but also their ability to gain access to things that are presumably forbidden. In my opinion it is an interesting study of humanity to not only see but also to understand the ways in which that desire manifest itself. Nowhere does it present itself more clearly than the economy that emerges in the day to day life of inmates.
In order to fully understand this, one must first understand how the system works or is supposed to. The theoy, probably the brainchild of some lifelong BOP employee, is basically sound. Upon arrival, inmates are issued an ID card that carries their inmate number. Any new inmate is instructed never, at the risk of great peril, to be without that card. I can't say that I ever quite understood that one, the premise being that you were required and should be able to clearly identify yourself at all times. This always struck me as funny, for who in the hell would want to be thought an inmate who actually wasn't. Even still, the requirement exists, and it is not uncharted territory for the BOP to implement and carry out to the fullest a procedure that is void of logic.
The aforementioned card also served various other purposes, it was required to be presented to access medical or dental treatment such as it was and it also served as a sort of credit card that could be used in vending machines and to purchase items at the commissary. The card was re-loadable much like the prepaid credit cards that have become popular today. Your family or friends could wire money to a specific address and the funds would be placed on your account for your personal use. There was a monthly cap of $300 and any funds that arrived over that amount would be returned.
One would think that in an environment where meals, clothing, housing, medical and dental care were provided $300 would be an adequate amount to provide for personal needs, not always. The BOP isn't shy about charging a prices that are considerably higher than the item could bought for outside after all they are dealing with a captive audience (no pun intended) so why not exploit that to the fullest and set prices at whatever amount they felt like since the normal economic variable of supply and demand simply does not apply.
Consequently, in the early days of confinement at least, it is often difficult for an inmate to acquire certain items of clothing, tennis shoes and a sweat suit to be specific as well as a number of personal toiletry items that were not provided. Even still $300 was the limit and for the most part the inmates learned to deal with it after the first few weeks and making that money last for a month became a little easier to do. It was however necessary to follow a budget as those funds were also used to pay for phone calls, also outrageously priced, and a tremendously important part of an inmates life.
Prison is not different from the real world in that there are the "haves" someone who's family or friends make sure that their card is reloaded at the beginning of each month and the "have nots" who have no one who either cares enough or is in a financial position to do so. Prison does in fact leave many young wives with small children who had previously been dependent on their husband, despite the fact the he may have been a criminal, to provide for them and their children, to now fend for themselves and this alone can be a real deal breaker as far as marriages are concerned. The number of inmates who experience divorce in prison is overwhelming, and the younger and less financially secure the couple, the worse it is. It is no wonder given the situation.
The financial divide creates the necessity for those less fortunate to consider ways to earn while inside if they are to have any extras at all and thus the prison economy is born. It didn't take me long to learn after my time began that there were a number of inmates offering a number of services, from shoe shines, to doing laundry, to making beds or giving haircuts as a means of providing themselves those extras.
Any economy needs currency and prison is no different, the requirement of compensation for services rendered, dictates that something has to be used for that purpose, just as earlier cultures used sea shells or shiny stones, blankets or livestock, prisoners provide for compensation through the use of something of value and strangely enough it becomes accepted throughout the facility pretty quickly. In Atlanta, it was Tuna, that's right Tuna. Initially when I entered it was traded in small pop top cans but pretty soon changed to the single serving foil pouches that are sold in stores today.
It works like this, inmate number one negotiates a deal with inmate number two to do his laundry each week in exchange for two cans of Tuna, inmate number one then takes the Tuna and exchanges it to inmate number three for additional food, items from the commissary or even another service. Inmate three uses the Tuna to buy the things he wants and so forth and so on. During my time in Atlanta, I knew inmates that would have a locker completely full of Tuna and lived well on the inside, spending it as the need arose. Some inmates did not participate in the practice but that was a rare occurrence.
The currency varies from location to location. In Edgefiled, SC, the currency was postage stamps but the same process applied and stamps were used to pay for the necessities that wouldn't otherwise be available. Only having served in two facilities I have no idea what might be used in other locations.
The guards were aware of the practice and even joked about it, although some jerk guard, with an axe to grind would from time to time pull a locker, then search and confiscate any more than 20 cans or fifty stamps that were held in one locker. The inmates who maintained large quantities simply hired other inmates to house part of their stock in exchange for, you guessed it, Tuna or stamps.
I won't say that I never participated in the exchange of currency at either location but I will say that my involvement was limited as my family graciously provided for me while I was away thereby eliminating my need to do so very often. I did in fact use the system as the need arose but my involvement was limited compared to others who used the system as their sole means of support.
I have to say that I found it remarkable that some inmates who literally had nothing became quite proficient at getting what they needed based solely on the use of their own wits, negotiating skills and willingness to work.
I guess at the end of the day, driven people do what they have to do regardless of their circumstances and despite environment achievers emerge. There is no doubt that the number of "hustlers" in a prison environment would be larger in percentage by comparison to any other comparable group but "hustler" or not, the desire to possess the "creature comforts" that are available regardless of one's situation is a strong and driving motivation and nowhere is it more obvious than inside the walls of a prison.
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Brandon on December 16, 2011:
klw, I appreciate your article. I've referred to it a couple times in research regarding prison currency.
Gustave Kilthau from USA on November 06, 2010:
klw - Nothing like a can of tuna or a can of stamps to make one's day. Interesting article from a viewpoint muh different from any I have read before now. Thanks.