Sometimes when I sit and think about what life is like here I shake my head. Other times I laugh to myself, and yet others I’m amazed. Living in This World is like living in another universe. There’s so much going on around me at any given moment that if I could illustrate these events for you in real time, you would be astounded.
As I sit here on my bunk writing this post on my 7″ tablet, three guys are arguing over this week’s upcoming Cincinnati Bengals game; a short distance from them, one of the guys is getting a tattoo shot on his arm; a few feet away from me my neighbor is reading his bible, and across the way I hear one of the dogs barking and it’s inmate handler now correcting it and instructing it to stop. Within this organized chaos there are perhaps a dozen guys on the phone, walking with a tablet and headset, or standing, or sitting on their bunks. There’s a guy somewhere in the distance arguing with his girlfriend, another laughing, and yet another telling his caller some story about his childhood unnecessarily loud. One of the DUI guys is checking on his brewing batch of hooch with another inmate posted “6-5” (aka ‘standing watch’). I see guys hustling about looking to buy a “sliv” (aka ‘a piece of’) siboxone, or where they can get their fix of heroin or crystal. And, nearby there are guys getting high, probably snorting heroin, but who am I to put my nose in their business? All of this will suddenly cease and revert to a park-like atmosphere with birds chirping and squirrels rustling the moment the guard makes his rounds. Kind of like the phone ringing in the middle of a party when someone’s parents are out of town. Instant normalcy. Then as soon as the guard is gone, the tattoo gun whirs back to life, the argument continues, and another line is snorted somewhere. In short, it’s a typical afternoon here.
It’s organized chaos if you ask me, but every day of every week and every month of the year, this scene plays itself out over and over again without a hitch. All of it is made possible by a number of factors, but the most powerful of them all is the Grapevine.
Out there in your world this would be referred to as neighborly or workplace gossip, but the Grapevine is far more than that. The Grapevine is a powerful, often very accurate, informational communication network hidden from staff and administration. It is governed by a set of unwritten rules adhered to by most inmates, and it is where every convict and inmate turn for information, assistance, or to stay abreast of what may be brewing.
Everything happening around me at this moment are calculated events based on the Grapevine. For example, that DUI fellow (who wouldn’t stop drinking if the Lord instructed him to do so) put on his batch of hooch earlier in the week. It’ll take him about 4-7 days to brew his poison. Bet your last dollar that he consulted the Grapevine on whether or not there has been any talk of an institution-wide shakedown this week, or whether or not the cell block regular will be working. Both could impact his plans and both are important in order for him to maintain his addiction. And how about the guys tattooing? Definitely consulted the Grapevine. For them, they would want to know who will be working the cell block, as the regular is predictable due to the benefit of weeks and months of observation, whereas a fill-in officer adds a little unpredictability. Also, by knowing who will be working, these guys are able to draw general conclusions on how ‘safe’ it is for them to conduct business. Then there are the addicts. This lot lives on the Grapevine. Why? Because they’re always sniffing for any indication of impending unannounced drug testing. This lot is often very successful, as the Grapevine has long tentacles and is very accurate.
Anyone can use the Grapevine. It’s as simple as asking someone as question. Think of it like Googling. I could ask one of the guys I know, “When is the delivery date for that upcoming fundraiser?” It’s a question about an event that hasn’t been posted yet, about a delivery date that likely hasn’t been officially approved. Yet, within minutes to maybe a few hours, I will have an answer. My question will be chain relayed to a guy who knows a guy who knows the guy spearheading the project, who will then casually inquire with the staffer overseeing the project the tentative planned delivery date, who then discreetly tells his buddy, who knows a guy who is friendly with my buddy, who then says, “Hey, Christopher, the delivery date is set for October 31st.” Just like that I now know a possible future event that I otherwise could not know.
The Grapevine is a powerful tool. If you’re “old school” (basically, anyone who has pulled a substantial number of years and is held in good esteem amongst one’s peers), you can obtain anything through the Grapevine. If I need to know a piece of hard to obtain information, I can get it because the Grapevine will see to it that I am tended to. If I need something physical that is hard to find, I can get it. If I need a service performed like a repair to my bunk or wardrobe I can get it. If I need a pair of shoes because the pair I own just blew out on me, within minutes I can locate a pair for sale.
There is a trust factor involved with the Grapevine. If you are “new school” your ability to obtain certain things through the Grapevine is limited. Some information sourced through the Grapevine concerns people, places, things, and events that are held very close to the vest by old schoolers and are not privy to the New Fish. Likewise, the ability of someone new to obtain a service or loan, who is an ‘unknown’ entity amongst peers, will be unable to achieve the ends he desires through the Grapevine.
The Grapevine is both Internet and Dark Web in one, Amazon and Silk Road. Through the Grapevine, the most nefarious items and services can be obtained. For addicts, their drug of choice can be obtained within minutes. For sex predators, they find victims. For the Cho-Mo and sex addict, there’s contraband photographs and girly magazines; even darker are ‘hit’ services, inmates for hire that will go beat up another and take the fall so long as the price is right. Oftentimes it’s the gangs that employ these services.
The Grapevine is also news and ‘fake news.’ Inmates will intentionally feed the Grapevine fake news when they become aware that staff and administrators have penetrated the network through a snitch, and effectively misdirect, confuse, and discredit their source. There’s a flipside to this, too. Sometimes staff successfully insert ‘fake news’ by openly talking in front of inmates, knowing that what was said will make its rounds. The Grapevine is constantly checking and verifying information, and it’s not uncommon for it to discover that there has been a deliberate attempt at manipulation. It’s information warfare that is in many ways no different that what the world’s spy services regularly engage in!
Early on in my incarceration, I learned quickly how beneficial and how powerful the Grapevine is. During my first year, I had no contact with family and no outside support, so I had to make ends meet on my own. My first use of the Grapevine was for a haircut. I had asked someone who the barber was. Within minutes I knew not only who the barber was, I was introduced to him. The barber then gave me a haircut right there in my cell, and I paid him a pack of Cadillacs (aka “brand name cigarettes”) for his services. Shortly after that I needed help filing my appeal, and so I consulted the Grapevine and was promptly referred to one of the guys whose business hustle involved helping guys with their legal work. I quickly learned how beneficial the Grapevine is if you stay true to your word and pay your debts as agreed. Eventually, observing cons draw conclusions about your character and trustworthiness, and the Grapevine changes from a simple source of information to an entity that’s willing to serve you.
I’ve used the Grapevine over the years as a support network, like when my brother was in Iraq years ago in his first tour. Through the Grapevine I found other guys who had family in the military also in Iraq. I’ve used it to make ends meet in my early days; I’ve used it to help the guys I’ve mentored over the years; I’ve used it to help guys who felt they had nowhere else to turn for help, and I’ve even used it for entertainment and to pass the time. Nowadays I use it to move forward towards my goals upon release.
The Grapevine is the most powerful informal tool available to inmates, and how one chooses to use it determines how the Grapevine reacts to you. It’s both an entity and nothing. It’s a service provider and a service taker.
It’s all up to you.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane