Most convicts live month to month on their state pay (a monthly stipend earned from working a prison job). There are jobs for working in food services, the education department, maintenance, recreation, and even in the cell blocks. Everyone here works. There are probably 50 or so different jobs guys can choose from and 95% pay a monthly earnings of $21.00 or less. Think about this for a moment. Twenty one dollars for a month’s work.
With that $21.00 you are expected to live your days and quietly do your time. Now, throw in the fact that 75% of all inmates make monthly payments to their sentencing court for fines or child support or for judgements levied against them, and a number of these men literally make $10.00 a month (the minimum amount that the state has determined cannot be taken from inmates no matter how much they owe every month). That’s $10.00 to spend on necessities such as soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, toilet paper, toothpaste, shaving razors, and so forth. This does not include those times when you may be sick. Inmates are expected to purchase from commissary medications such as cough syrup, aspirin, ibuprofen, antacids, antibiotic ointment, all allergy medications, band aids etc. Throw in a $2 co-pay in order to see the doctor in the first place, just to have him literally tell you in the end, “You’ll survive, buy some aspirin from commissary,” and it’s easy to see how $10.00 is an impossible monthly mission.
What then if you are poor and earn $10.00 a month? How do you think this affects the lives of men serving time?
It has a very negative effect. Having nothing makes you uncomfortable. When guys are uncomfortable they become stressed, and when guys become stressed they don’t think properly. Some guys act out against staff through confrontation. Others act out against their peers by fighting or arguing. Still others resort to stealing from the institution and stealing from others. I don’t think I need to tell you that stealing in This World is a perilous profession. There are many thieves here, but there are no old thieves.
So to make ends meet, guys hustle. What’s a hustle? It’s any effort that provides a service or product, for a fee, to one’s peers. Think of it as private contractor services or in some cases small business dealings. Hustles cover a wide range of possibilities. At their core they fill the day to day financial gap allowing guys to live a more comfortable existence.
For some guys, their job is their hustle. Men working the kitchen come upon extra onions, tomatoes, sugar–just about anything, really–and then sell it in the cell blocks. If you’re making a break (a self-made meal) and know you could use certain items, simply put your order in ahead of time. Then there are guys who hustle by making homemade sweets, like fudge or suckers, by buying sugar from guys hustling out of the kitchen. If you have a food skill like that there’s no shortage of ‘customers’. I know guys who make well over $125.00 a month selling homemade sweets $.50 at a time. Of course, there are guys who will buy sugar and fruits from the kitchen in order to make hooch (prison made wine). They then sell pints ($5-$10) to the alcoholics, and frankly, there are no shortage of them (pints or alcoholics).
There are guys whose hustles are laundry services where you can have your laundry washed, dried, and folded any time you need it. In the cell blocks we have laundry rooms with washers and dryers. For as little as $2.50 a month I can have my laundry done 3 times a week, folded and delivered back to me. These “laundry men” provide a much appreciated service. The handful of men who hustle laundry services wash 60% of everyone’s laundry in the unit. They work together in the laundry room, and by doing so, everyone’s laundry is efficiently moved and cleaned.
However, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. I’ve seen everything imaginable occur in the laundry rooms–literally. One year there was a creepy father/son cho-mo (child molestor) duo that hustled laundry services. Guys called them “The Oompa Loompa’s” because they resembled the characters from the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie. One day the youngest was working alone in the laundry room. By chance one of the guys went rushing back to the laundry because he’d forgotten to start his dryer. When he rushed in, he found the youngest with a pair of dirty underwear pressed against his nose. He was sniffing the dirty drawers of his 17 year old client. (I tell you this is true– you can’t make this stuff up!) Needless to say, things ended bad for him.
Some cons hustle by cleaning cells. They’ll literally come in and scrub down the cell and set it right just like any house maid services on the street. The cost? Anywhere from $2.50-4.00 a month for 2x weekly cleaning. If you don’t like dealing with the roaches and the mice and the spiders, then having someone clean for you is great.
There are cons engaged in the classic prison hustle of cutting hair. If you cut hair, you are highly valued and often respected. Though prison rules state that barbers aren’t allowed to charge for a hair cut, they informally make more than a hundred dollars a week from ‘tips’ cutting hair. It’s one of the unwritten rules of This World to pay for your haircut. A haircut costs a pack of smokes or equivalent ($2.50-4.00). What happens if you come empty handed? Let’s just say that you can always spot the guys who went empty handed to the barber by their haircuts.
Like barber services, tattooing is another classic prison hustle. Of all the hustles, the tattoo artist is held in the highest esteem. If you are skilled with ink and gun, you can make hundreds of dollars a month tattooing. Cons fashion tattoo needles from guitar strings and even springs from inside click ink pens. They fashion the guns from the empty outer bodies of ink pens, motors from cassette or cd players, and put it all together in the most amazing of ways using a simple 4-12V adapter purchased in commissary or by clothes box (Clothes box? see my post Captured Clientele).
And what about ink? Oftentimes it’s genuine ink from the streets obtained through ‘unconventional’ means. One guy hustled small bottles of ink for $50.00 a bottle that he smuggled into the institution after having left for outside court. How did he do it? Well, how do you think he did it? You’d be amazed at how much can be stuffed up there. Othertimes, ink is smuggled in by crooked guards. The price? Usually free tattoo work. I’ve seen on a number of occassions over the years guards getting tattoo work as payment. The same tattoo work that guys charge $25.00 for here will run you several hundred dollars on the street. The quality of work available in This World rivals the best art out there. A fact: Most tattooist in the free society are ex-cons who have leveraged their skills into a legitimate business. If you ever want to get a tattoo, seek out shops that are run by ex-cons. I’d settle for nothing less.
Nothing is thrown away in This World. Everything has extended life and usage through repair. Take the guys hustling cobbler services. You can have your blown out shoes stitched back together with industrial thread obtained from the quartermaster or through the use of dental floss. You can have your shoes resoled and restitched by hand for a fraction of what you woud pay for a new pair. These same individuals often sell used shoes in addition to repairing them. If you have a pair of shoes that have come apart, you can trade them to the local cobbler, along with 5-15 dollars for another used pair. This is a valuable service for guys that don’t have the financial means to buy a new pair. What about shoes beyond repair? I know guys who make durable, stylish cases for your tablet or radio or mp3 player with the leather from old shoes. Everything has second use.
Like the cobbler, their are mechanics who will fix most anything electronic that you have: fans, televisions, trimmers, cd players, and even your tablet. I never buy a new pair of headphones when the wires come apart. I send them to my local handyman and he rewires the headphones–like new. This costs anywhere from a couple of bucks to maybe $5. There’s always the possibility of repair, and if not repairable, there’s always second usage for parts.
Some convicts are skilled in arts and crafts. This is a popular hustle, and for those that are very skilled it is a high paying hustle. I know men that spend their days hand crafting amazing wooden model Harley Davidson Motorcycles.
This is a classic prison craft. The craftmanship with these motorcycles is amazing. On average they sell for $100.00 to $150.00 here, but out there the same craft will cost you anywhere from $250.00 to $500.00. In addition to motorcycles, guys make jewelry boxes to clocks to custom crafted items for special occasions. Some crafts are very simple, and some are very unique.
Then there are hustles that don’t fit the common mold. I know guys in the Dog Pound program here that hustle by washing dogs. When guys receive new dogs from the pound, they are often smelly and flea ridden. Washing them can be an adventure, as many of these dogs are traumatized, afraid, or otherwise affected by their stay at the pound. For $1.00, there are guys that will wash that dog for you.
There are guys that literally cook custom breaks (prison meals) for those willing to pay for their time and effort. The cost? Usually half of what is being made or monetary compensation equal to 1/2 of the cost of the entire meal. For some it’s a hustle so they don’t have to go hungry, while others were literally cooks or chefs on the street and this is what they love to do. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, I commission guys like this to make me aMaZiNg desserts.
Finally, prison is like a metropolis of its own. As with any large communal system, you have your shadow hustlers. There are men who hustle in the sex trade. An underground world in an underground world.
Pulling time is a world of its own. It’s a world that takes care of itself, and it’s a world that is self-sufficient. Indeed, prison hustles make the world go around.
*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.
5 thoughts on “Prison Hustles Make the World Go Round”
Your story reads like it could be a prologue in a Mickey Spillane novel. I’ll bet there is a newspaper editor out there who would find your day to day descriptions worthy of a journalistic treatment. Good example of man’s creative ingenuity to survive under restrictive conditions. Your examples are not unlike episodes historians have documented about POW’s. Only difference is war and peace.
I will send a note to the NY Times for starters…..anyone else?
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