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  • The underground economy is real in prison, and people who don't understand it can get into a lot of trouble.

  • There’s actual inmates that create their own stores, and you would see guys with these huge necklaces filled with money. And I’d think, "Where did they get this money?"

  • Hustling is taking place 24 hours a day in prison.

  • Guys in there were... were getting killed, getting robbed, like they would on the street.

  • An inmate with a gun, another appears to be shooting up heroin, all caught on video.

  • Used to get half a dozen in a cell, couple of buckets of hooch and just wedge the door up and just have a party all night and say, "Come and get us copper."

  • Christmas Eve 2021 wasn’t exactly a normal day inside for one group of Brazilian prisoners.

  • Instead, there were scenes that looked more like a stag do than a grim festive period behind bars.

  • Clearly, the inmates, based at a men’s lockup in Goiâna, a city in northeastern Brazil, had put some careful planning into making the best of a bad situation.

  • Leaked mobile phone footage shows a DJ and two female dancers hired for the night’s entertainment.

  • Though prison authorities launched an immediate investigation, questions remain.

  • Smuggling in drugs, smartphones, and scrappy pieces of contraband is one thing. But people?

  • The prison economy is a strange thing, wherever you are in the world.


  • Prison life has its own informal economy, and when it comes to economic inequality, being inside isn’t always so dissimilar to the outside world.

  • There are still the people who represent the haves as well as the have-nots.

  • Naturally, there are a few key differences.

  • Commodities usually take the place of cash as the dominant currency.

  • I realized that there was a world inside this world. $1 was like a value of $20.

  • Valuable resources can be traded in kind or for favors and influence.

  • It’s practically like, unbelievable the stuff that you can purchase with food.

  • Tobacco, tinned food, toiletriesanything that might make the boredom and squalor of prison life that little bit more bearable.

  • It makes economic sense. Anything non-perishable, easily traded, and packed into standard units is ideal.

  • What became currency was, believe it or not, ramen! It was a noodle!

  • Ramen is big business inside out of necessity rather than any great love of cheap dried noodles.

  • Youve got to have it. There's... Youre going to starve if you don’t.

  • Cuts to the number and quality of meals over the years have created an obvious problem in US prisons.

  • Ramen and other kinds of long-life food can help plug the gap and help mark an inmate’s status.

  • You can tell how well a man’s doing financially by how many soups he’s got in his locker.

  • Plus, ramen can also make a nasty weapon.

  • They would wet it and wrap it with newspaper. It hardens.

  • You know, when you have a dry piece of fruit or something that gets so hard, and it gets to a point where you start sharpening it,

  • and it creates a shank where you insert in somebody and then you could break it in.

  • Cigarettes are old news. Toiletries and tinned fish are where it's really at.

  • Food seasoning also serves as a lucrative side hustle for enterprising inmates working the kitchen detail.

  • Basic staples like black pepper and chili powder are too easily weaponized in fights to be readily available at the canteen.

  • It’s why the kitchen is such a coveted job, especially if someone is looking to exploit and take advantage of the rules.

  • You could sell just about anything that comes out of that kitchen, you know, and there’s people that live off that.

  • Though maybe it isn’t quite right to ignore tobacco’s enduring appeal, at least in the UK.

  • Inflation bites even inside, and the costs have ballooned over the last decade, in part due to an often ignored smoking ban inside prisons.

  • In late 2021, a single packet of cigarette papers worth 59p in an ordinary shop was worth £5, at least in one Staffordshire prison.

  • One inmate even demanded £4 for a strike of a match.

  • Rolling tobacco worth £12.50 in a supermarket trades for £1,000 in several jails across the country.

  • Are you alright?

  • Drugs form another cornerstone of the prison economy.

  • It’s hardly news that jails around the world are awash with narcotics.

  • First time I took it, I smoked it like a spliff, and the guy said, "Yeah, that’s a big mistake."

  • For those who fall into debt with their dealers, the consequences are often severe, with beatings and worse, a very real threat.

  • I mean, there’s men, quite frankly, they get raped, they get killed.

  • The last decade has seen an explosion in the prevalence of spice, the synthetic cannabis alternative.

  • It’s potent, addictive, and often leads to crippling prison debt.

  • What might be cheap and nasty outside is a very different beast in HMP.

  • The smooth working of the prison economy can be crucial in reducing tensions.

  • In the autumn of 2021, Ghanaian ex-prisoner Tetteh Teye took to the radio to talk up the importance of weed in the country’s jails.

  • The authorities, he claimed, were well aware of the booming trade and often turned a blind eye.

  • The system required a steady supply to inmates, who needed it to keep them in good spirits.

  • Without it, violence often rises.

  • The Ghanaian press recently reported several cases of prison guards bringing in Indian hemp, which is then sold on to prisoners, who in turn could sell it to fellow inmates.

  • The prison economy isn’t so different from that in the outside world.

  • Money talks.

  • Where there’s a will, there’s generally a way, even behind bars.

  • Media reports suggest at least one employee was sacked for his part in the Brazilian Christmas party, while three inmates have been transferred to other institutions.

  • According to embarrassed authorities, the investigation is still ongoing.

The underground economy is real in prison, and people who don't understand it can get into a lot of trouble.

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How to Make Money in Prison

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    Jeff Chiao posted on 2022/04/14
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