|If you have a loved one that’s incarcerated you probably struggle with feelings of worry and concern. This is, of course, natural. For us prisoners life here can be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. How your loved one chooses to view his or her time has a sizable impact on how incarceration is experienced.
For prisoners, incarceration marks a low point in their lives. They may suffer from feelings of depression or sadness, and for some there’s frustration or misguided anger. Prison can be a lonely place. That said, you play an important role in this process. Your loved one needs your support, and that support comes in a number of forms.
Write letters to your loved one. I know, who does that nowadays? I’m talking good oldfashioned pen and paper snail mail. I talk about why your letters matter in the post titled “Why Your Letters Matter” It was written 2 years ago, but the truths it offers transcends time and are universal.
Another helpful thing you can do is to financially support your loved one. Send money periodically or regularly. In my recent 1/26/22 post titled “Financially Supporting Incarcerated Loved Ones” I explain concisely how to approach and handle this. Financial support is important, and we’re going to spend the rest of this post explaining why. We’re also going to explain how prisoners make ends meet when they have no financial support. Part of being there for your loved one is to first learn about prison life and what we prisoners experience and how we survive. Only then can you understand and be in a position to help.
Prisoners live month to month on their ”state pay,” which is a monthly stipend for working a mandatory prison job paid to us by the state. There’s jobs for working in the chow hall, the education department, maintenance, recreation and even the cell blocks. Everyone here works. Most prison jobs pay less than $22.00 a month. Think about this for a moment. Twenty-two dollars or less for a month’s work. With that you’re expected to live out your days and quietly do your time. Expected to survive while also purchasing necessities such as soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, toilet paper, toothpaste, shaving razors and so forth. An impossible mission.
How do you think this affects prisoners? It has a terribly negative effect. For some it’s the main source of depression. Having nothing and always struggling makes you uncomfortable. When prisoners are uncomfortable they are stressed, and when prisoners become stressed they don’t think clearly. We’ve watched our peers act out against staff through verbal confrontation or by fighting or arguing with other prisoners. Some resort to stealing from the institution and stealing from those around them. We don’t think that we need to tell you that stealing in This World is a perilous endeavor. There are many thieves here but there are no old thieves.
So to survive prisoners hustle. What’s a hustle? It’s any effort providing 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 prisoners to live a more reasonable existence.
For some their job is their hustle. Those working in the kitchen may come upon extra tomatoes, onions sugar, just about anything, really, and then sell it in the cell blocks or dorms. There are those who hustle making homemade desserts such as fudge, suckers and even cake. If you have a food skill like that there’s no shortage of customers.
Here at my men’s institution and at Felicia’s women’s institution there are those who survive by hustling hooch (prison made wine). They sell pints for 5 and 10 dollars apiece to the alcoholics. There’s no shortage of them either, pints or alcoholics. Making hooch is against the rules and those caught doing that are punished.
Then there are those whose hustles are laundry services where we can have our laundry washed, dried and folded any time we need. For as little as $2.50 a month Felicia or me can have laundry done 3 times a week, folded and delivered back to us.
Some prisoners hustle by cleaning cells. They’ll literally come in and scrub it down and set it right just like home 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, spiders and the mice, then having someone come clean for you is great. I don’t mind the spiders, but Felicia wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if they all suddenly vanished from the world.
Then there’s the classic prison hustle of cutting hair. It’s a coveted skill at men’s and women’s institutions. If you cut hair and are good at it, you are highly respected and valued. Though prison rules state that barbers aren’t allowed to charge for their services, barbers informally make upwards of a hundred dollars a week from ‘tips’ cutting hair. It’s one of the unwritten rules of prison to pay for your haircut. What happens if you come empty handed? Let’s just say that you can always spot those who went empty handed for their haircuts.
Like barber services, tattooing is another classic prison hustle. Of all the prison hustles the tattooist is held in the highest esteem. If you are skilled with ink and gun you can make hundreds of dollars a month. Prisoners create tattoo needles from guitar strings and even springs from inside click 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 ingenious of ways with power from a simple 4-12V adapter purchased in commissary. Tattooing, like brewing hooch, is against the rules. Yet, for a handful of prisoners it’s how they survive when they don’t have any outside support.
Nothing is thrown away in this world. Everything has extended life and usage through repair. Take the guys hustling cobbler services for instance. 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 or restitched by hand for a fraction of the price you’d 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 in to the local cobbler, along with ten to twenty dollars for another used pair. This is a valuable service if you don’t have the financial means to buy a new pair. Interestingly this is a hustle that’s not common in women’s prisons.
Like the cobbler, there are mechanics who will fix most anything electronic that you own, fans, radios, televisions and even your tablet. I never buy a new pair of headphones when the wires come apart or wear out. I send them to my local handyman, and he rewires them like new. This costs anywhere from a couple of bucks to about five dollars. There’s always the possibility of repair, and if unsalvageable, there’s always second usage for parts.
Then there’s arts and crafts. This is a popular hustle in men’s and women prisons, and for those that are skilled it’s a high paying hustle. In men’s prisons guys will spend their days hand crafting amazing wooden model Harley Davidson Motorcycles. The craftmanship with these is amazing. On average they sell for $100 to $150 here, but out there these same crafts cost anywhere from $250 to $500. In addition to motorcycles guys make custom crafted items for special occasions. I’ve seen jewelry boxes, clocks, eagles, and hummingbirds carved from ivory soap, functioning handcrafted lighthouses. The list is long. At women’s prisons hand crafted greeting cards for holidays and special occasions are popular, and hand drawn birthday banners for prisoners and free world citizens. Some women make a fabulous side income custom creating banners.
Cooks for hire are popular in men and women’s prisons. The cost? Usually half of what is being made or some agreed upon portion. For male and female prisoners, it’s a hustle so that they don’t have to go hungry. Others simply love to cook.
Now you know how prisoners make ends meet when they don’t have money. These aren’t all of the hustles that exist, just the more common ones. But the one thing we want you to come away with after having read this is that it’s easier for your loved one to be the one seeking services because he or she has the financial means to do so, than to be the one relying upon a hustle to survive. Several prison hustles are against the rules. Part of surviving your sentence involves staying out of trouble, too.
We believe that rehabilitation, not endless incarceration, is the key to breaking the cycle of crime. The solution to incarceration isn’t more incarceration. Awareness begins one post and one voice at a time.
Discover more letters in “Behind The Wall: A Prisoner’s Journal”
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