It’s All About the Hustle by Christopher

“I can’t do this,” Spider said to me. “I won’t live this way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I won’t that’s what I mean! I’ll steal or extort one of these guys.”

I sat on my bunk quietly. I let my friend vent because I knew he needed it. His wife had informed him she was leaving him, and that she couldn’t help him anymore. By “help” she meant financially. The hundred dollars a month she had sent from his first day of incarceration would immediately end.

“Dude, I’m sorry,” I said, referring to his relationship falling apart.
“Yeah,” he muttered, “thanks.”
“Listen, you could always hustle.”
“And do what?” He said.

That was a good question. There are a lot of prison hustles, but not all prison hustles are for everyone. You’ve got to discover where you fit in. If anyone knew this better than anyone else it was me.

The first couple of years of my sentence were hellish. I had no contact with family, no financial support from anyone. I made $17.00 per month working my prison job as a porter. This is called “state pay” here in Ohio. Today 95% of Ohio’s incarcerated earn less than $24.00 per month.

Think about it. $24 to live off of. Sure we get 3 meals a day, but what constitutes a “meal” is up for debate. Most men find themselves hungry in between the middle school sized portions. And that’s if it’s even edible.

From state pay you are expected to purchase a month’s worth of hygiene: toothpaste, soap, razors, shampoo–the list is long. An impossible mission. Without financial support from the outside, life behind these walls becomes a zombie like existence. The walking dead surviving off of the living.

To solve this, we incarcerated ‘hustle’ to fill financial gaps in wants and needs.

“You could do what I used to do,” I said. “You could do legal work.”
“I don’t know anything about the law,” Spider sulked.
“Well, neither do I. I typed up stuff for guys, helped fill out forms.
It’s not hard.”
“I don’t have a typewriter.”
“You don’t need one,” I said. “You can use the word processors in the law library. Type what you need, print it and you’re done.”
“What does it pay?”
“Well, I used to make anywhere from 5 bucks to type out a letter someone had written to 25 bucks to file a judicial. It depends.”

Spider seemed to fold into himself at the thought of having to hustle one letter and one form at a time.

Everyone here works. There’s roughly 50 or so jobs guys can choose from. There are jobs working in food services, the education department, maintenance, recreation, visiting and even in the cell blocks. Sure, 95% pay $24 or less, but 5% pay a little more. Those jobs tend to require specialized training or some form of intensive instruction.

“You could work OPI,” I said. OPI stands for Ohio Penal Industries, the arm of corrections that pays us incarcerated pennies on the hour to do union style jobs.
“What?” Spider balked. “Do I look like a slave to you?”
“Well, no–”
“Besides you’ve got to know someone to get a job there.”
“Okay,” I conceded. “You could get a job as a dog handler and go through the apprenticeship program. Then you can get a job in the staff dog program. Hell you’ll make good money.”
“That apprenticeship takes two years!”
“Sure, but it’s a federal certification that you can take with you to–”
“I need something today. I pay court fines! I’ll probably have child support now.”

I wanted to throw my hands up and walk away. It was obvious Spider hadn’t come to terms with his situation.

He did have a point though. If you owe court ordered fines, fees or child support, you are expected to pay on them every month. The state of Ohio allows garnishment of your state pay earnings down to $10. That’s 10.00 to spend on necessities. Ten friggin’ dollars. Impossible. Spider, like thousands of other men, would have to come up with a way to survive.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, consider when Spider may become sick. He, like the rest of us, are expected to purchase medications such as cough syrup, aspirin, ibuprofen, antacids, allergy medications, the list is long. Throw in a $2 copay in order to see medical just to literally be told, “You’ll live. Buy some aspirin from commissary” The First Time Going to Medicaland it’s no wonder why so many men around me choose to risk death in this era of covid than to go without a necessity.

So guys hustle. From these efforts the grudging existence of life behind bars becomes tolerable. We’re able to breathe. Focus on more productive things than hunger pangs and the desire for a razor that shaves more than it rips the hairs from your face.

How many hustles are there? Hundreds, maybe thousands. Your imagination is the limit and the willingness of someone to pay you. However, here are several popular hustles that are universal.

Guys working in the kitchen hustle extra tomatoes, onions —just about anything, really— and then sell it in the cell blocks. From these efforts they’ll bring in a few bucks at a time.

Then there’s guys like my buddy Tex. He rakes in $200 a month through his home made confectionaries $0.75 at a time. He earns state pay of $24 and spends every cent of it on food ingredients for his fudge hustle. Frankly, his fudge is amazing. In a world of addicts, Tex’s confectioneries sell out before he makes them.

Jamaica is known for his hooch (prison made alcohol) which, might I add, is absolutely against the rules. Nonetheless, this forbidden practice exists at every prison the world over. Rich sells pints ($10-$15) to the alcoholics, and frankly, there are no shortage of them (pints or alcoholics). One of those penitentiary fun facts.

Can you cut hair? Most prisons have a barber shop staffed by the incarcerated who are actually state licensed barbers. Some of these men were barbers prior to prison, others earned their certification through a program at their facility. Guys working the barber shop earn “tips” (against the rules, of course) in the form of food, coffee you name it. An institution barber can earn hundreds of dollars a month in tips.

If you are skilled like a barber you can hustle haircuts on the side, no certification required, though I’d imagine you’re not only breaking rules but breaking a law somewhere. But what do I know?

Don’t mind gigantic spiders? Fleeing cockroaches? Skittering mice? Then I have the job for you. Prison cells are infamous for their nonhuman guests. I’ve seen the toughest guy dance on a table like a school girl over the sight of mice, and heard deep voices hit Whitney Houston pitch over spiders. A cell cleaning hustle pays reasonably with only a dozen “customers.” The cost? About 5 bucks a month for once a week cleaning.

In prisons where we must wash our own laundry using washers and dryers in a community area of the housing unit, work as a “laundry man” will pay the bills. My buddy Ball hustled as a laundry man for years. He washed probably 1/3 of the guys laundry in the unit over a given month. That’s how many customers he had. You won’t catch me in that 110F laundry room on a hot summer day. I’m happy to shell out 5 bucks for someone else to sweat my laundry clean.

Which now brings me to the “store man”. One of the most lucrative hustles behind these walls save for illegal narcotics (yes, even that is a hustle but I’ll get to that in a moment). Store men run personal stores where you can “borrow” food items for 50-100% above actual cost. These are akin to a loan shark operation. Go ahead and borrow whatever you need, get what you want. But you better pay it back on time as agreed. Fail to do so and repercussions range from your debt instantly doubling with payment due immediately, to an unpleasant visit from ‘that dude’ (universally known as “Bubba”) whose hustle is to collect money for the store men. Yes, there’s a hustle for that.

Then there’s drugs. 100% “Do Not Pass Go” and “Go Directly To Jail” against the rules illegal. I hesitate to list this as a prison “hustle” but sadly, it is. This is a subject for an entire post in itself. Just know, it’s illegal, it has to do with every drug under the sun, and very bad things often happen. Drug dealers in prison are dangerous for they are able to command a blind devotion from addicts in doing a dealer’s bidding. People sometimes die. So let’s just move on.

Then you have one of my earliest cellmates “Taz.”

Taz was a phenomenal tattoo artist. The secret to his comfortable life in prison. Taz freehanded everything from memory, whatever you could think of. Ghostly images sprang from both arms with the faces of friends and loved ones time had stole from him. Dual fiery red, yellow and orange dragons clawed down his chest, spiked tails looping over either shoulder snaking DNA helix like down his back. Big breasted mermaids sat on a rock petting over evil looking eels that were his entire right leg, from thigh to ankle. Like the Painted Man in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

If you’ve ever seen tats from prison they’re often a single color: black. This has to do with the myriad of ways to “make” ink, none of them safe. Color is rare because color must come from the street.

One guy hustled small bottles of colored ink for $50 a bottle that he’d smuggled into the institution after having left for outside court. How did he do it? Well, how do you think he did it? Use your imagination. Other times ink is smuggled in by crooked guards. The cost? Usually free tattoo work. Over the years I’ve witnessed guards getting tattoo work as payment. The same tattoo work guys charge $25 for here runs hundred of dollars on the street.

Ink work in prison rivals the best art out there. Which brings me to another prison fun fact: Most tattooists in the free society are ex con’s 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 con’s. I’d settle for nothing less.

“Those are the hustles I can think of,” I said to Spider. “Now it’s up to you to figure out what you want to do.”

And so, Spider did.


6 thoughts on “It’s All About the Hustle by Christopher

  1. Heather

    I learned a lot about hustles in this and you’re a very talented writer. I hope you will write more about hustles sometime soon christopher. It’s different in the women’s prison.

  2. Bethet

    I can’t believe they pay you so little and think it’s okay that everyone is okay. That’s cruel and unusual punishment. What happens when someone can’t hustle or can’t figure it out?😕

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