In prison, everyone has a job.
Depending on the prison (and security level), the sorts of jobs available can vary dramatically. There are the obvious jobs: serving meals, washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, landscaping. Then there are the unexpected jobs: driving a truck, teaching a class, or being a librarian.
These jobs all include a paycheck. Some jobs pay as much as $50 per month. Industrial jobs (think cliché, like making license plates) can pay even more, though politics and a hundred other factors play into getting such jobs. But the paycheck is only part of the reason someone would pursue a job. For the most part, each kind of job has a built-in side job (or “hustle”). This is where the “real money” (if you want to call it that) gets made by the aspiring entrepreneur.
To be clear, “real money” isn’t real money. When someone owes you, you make a “list” for them, which is a scrap of paper with a list of things you want from the commissary which total up to roughly the amount you’re owed. Through various means, you get the list to them, and they get the commissary items to you. And nonpayment is frowned upon by the inmate population like escape is frowned upon by the staff.
Let’s start with one of the easiest ones to understand and that I’ve touched on before. If you’re the cook, you get access to all sorts of food and ingredients. Some of which actually make it into prison meals. Some of which doesn’t. At the most basic, you can sell these hard-to-get ingredients (garlic, cheese, ground beef, fresh vegetables) to other inmates. In many prisons, everyone involved in food service gets leftovers to sell in the housing units (the prison staff sometimes oversees it just to make sure the lowly dishwasher still gets a cut), but it’s the cooks that really make a killing because they can work with raw ingredients.
More than that, they also have access to real cooking facilities. No stingers or microwaves. Actual griddles and ovens. So a good cook can have the most profitable hustle in the facility for an extended period just because he has access to ingredients, tools, and experience that no one else has. His prepared food can carry a premium.
In some low-security facilities, one or two inmates are actually permitted to leave the facility in a car (sometimes under staff escort, and sometimes not). These are the special delivery guys. If there is something in town, this guy might be able to get it. Now, this is a high risk position because they are (naturally) under a lot of scrutiny. Mileage logs are analyzed, and applicants are heavily vetted. But they are the go-to guy in many facilities for the hard-to-get items.
Groundskeeping / Landscaping
Some competition for the town driver can be found in any groundskeeper with local contacts. If you’ve got someone who can throw something over a fence or dump it in a flower bed, the guy riding by on a lawnmower can pick it up and bring it in. These guys tend toward consumables, for some reason: McDonald’s, tobacco, or cell phones.
Remember that time you needed a report printed and you decided to bite the bullet and take it to Kinko’s? Well, the education department and other administrative roles with access to copy machines, typewriters, or (in some cases) old computers can help to make things like this happen for a nominal fee.
Prison is a filthy place. Seriously. And keeping your cell clean can be challenging without ready access to cleaning supplies and without pissing off your cellmates who are just trying to get to their locker while you’re mopping the floor before you leave for work. The janitors, who are tasked with the painful job of cleaning bathrooms, showers, and other common areas, compensate for this by cleaning cells for a monthly fee. This is probably the closest thing to a subscription service in terms of hustle, resulting in a steady stream of commissary food to this group.
Even if your job doesn’t offer an obvious built-in hustle, there are other ways to get ahead. Make elaborate food dishes from commissary food. Draw commissioned artwork (or tattoos). Do someone’s homework. Give music lessons. Run a gambling pool. Proofread legal work. Once I typed up a guy’s life story for him to send home to his family. I knew one guy who sold the prison’s only full pound burger (where he got all the ingredients and how he managed to cook that much ground beef with a microwave remains a mystery). Everyone is expected to have a hustle. If one’s not available, you invent one.
I don’t know how much of this exists in women’s prisons, but this business aspect is a primary consideration in everyday life for most inmates.
The Spirit and the Letter
Technically, a hustle is against the rules. Yes, I know the staff tolerates and often enables it, but if you read the rules, one inmate is not supposed to give anything to another. Plus, many of the items exchanged are stolen and/or contraband (mostly of the innocent variety, like vegetables).
In all transparency, this is one of the areas of my prison experience where my choices have unsettled me. I had hustles. I distributed food, sold copies, typed documents, and sold paper. Admittedly, I often also gave all the above away. But it’s a blurry line, and I’m not 100% certain I came down on the right side.
At the end of the day, I had to check the spirit of what I was doing and prayerfully seek counsel on it. I came to accept that a legalistic interpretation of things was simply untenable. I avoided most things (serious contraband, gambling, etc.), but I still bought cleaning and other services, sold things I did not own (since inmates do not own anything), and otherwise engaged in hustles.
I often look back on those years and ask myself if I had just embedded myself so deeply into the Babylonian culture that I let it influence me. I’m not objective enough to offer a perfect answer to that. However, I tend to think the answer is more nuanced and motivation-oriented than anything.