Today’s blog is from our well known, international blogger, Minette. This is an excerpt from her interview with inmate “Richard.” You’ll find some good insight for families and for those who may be facing time in prison or jail. Enjoy!
Like other interviewees, Richard considered the chow hall food gross. The ambiance in the room was nothing to crow about either. And, you’ll remember, proper protocol was required when you walked around and sat down at your table. You don’t walk through other group’s areas and you don’t take other people’s food.
Inmates were creative, resourceful chefs. For example, Richard remembered a delicious meal made by another inmate, shared with several people, of tasty Chinese food from pork rinds, white rice, and Kool-Aid packets sold in the commissary. Sometimes these meals were shared among people of different groups. When they could, they would add vegetables swiped from the kitchen or storerooms. There was a microwave available in the Yuma prison yard common room. Some prisons allowed electric water heaters in the cells. I read about one prisoner who heated up his tea by rapidly spinning a covered container very close to the electric light hanging in his cell, I think he also created a small flame from lighting toilet paper with a match.
The highlight of the week, according to Richard, was commissary day. It was like Christmas! And, he did not have much money to spend there. But everybody was in a good mood that day. People think in advance about what they need. Commissaries can provide first aid items, vitamins, clothing and shoes, electronic items including televisions and radios, paper, pens, and stamps, tastier meal items and snacks. Besides buying things for your own use, you can purchase items that can be used as currency in prison, such as stamps, cans of soup, tuna or mackerel, or bags of noodles. Prisoners are not supposed to have any cash on their person. It is all put into their account at the commissary and purchases are made directly from the funds in their account.
It is not like the outside world where you can drop by the grocery store anytime, usually it’s a once a week visit. So, commissary day was indeed special. But if you couldn’t wait, you would barter for items other prisoners had. Richard said you could get good deals when someone was about to be released. If they had a television or other valuable asset, they could either mail it out or sell it. It was easier to sell, less costly too. People could buy the item for a significantly discounted price. These transfers had to be approved by the prison authorities or the buyer might not be able to hang on to it for long. During a cell inspection also known as a cell toss, the buyer could lose the item because it did not have his inmate number on it and he didn’t have the paperwork to show it was an approved transfer. Or, if the inmate had been written up with enough tickets for infractions of the rules, he could lose privileges, and the television or other nicety of life could be taken away. Commissary trips was another privilege that could be taken away. Taking away privileges as punishment for infractions enables the way outnumbered correctional officers to maintain some control over the environment.
A word of advice, for those inmates with ample funds coming from outside prison, it is probably best not to flaunt the money by buying excessively. Showing that you have plenty of funds could make you a target for extortion. Others may ask you to pay for protection or strongly encourage you to buy things for them. Unless, of course, you are the one in power.
Most prisons have maximum limits on the amount that can be spent monthly at the commissary by an individual. One way of survival for people who did not have money in their account was to coordinate with others who had plenty of money in theirs. Funds were mailed into the accounts of the people who did not have other money and the recipient would go shopping for the flusher individual, a small commission would be left in the account of the prisoner who needed the money. Prisoners are very creative in menu planning and in figuring out how to make an income.
Inmates are creative because they have to be. With lots of time on their hands they think of ways to enhance their situation.