Letters From Prison 2006 #3- The “Informal” Economy

The “Informal” Economy
By Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. April 14, 2006

"You can get anything you want--at Alice's Restaurant ('ceptin' Alice)"
(Arlo Guthrie)

It seems you can get anything here at FPC Duluth as well. Creativity abounds within the human spirit. One sign that human spirit has not been totally crushed within the prison is the barter economy. One of my cellmates (not a cell but a dorm--but to say roommates or dorm-mate implies one is still at college) works in the kitchen chopping veggies. So, the going price for a good-size green pepper is 3 stamps (2 stamps for a smaller one). Onions and tomatoes are a stamp apiece unless they’re bigger. Even though we were scheduled to have chicken with fried rice at the mess hall last night, he and another guy down the hall decided they'd make their own fried rice with chicken in the dorm microwave. Out came a cutting board and a makeshift "chef's knife"--a metal piece a little bigger than a credit card, which neatly chopped up the green pepper and the breaded chicken ingredients. He doesn't have much experience with doing fried rice in the microwave so several others dropped by to give him suggestions of how to do it. He used the olive oil--but didn't soak the rice in egg (not sure he had one). He forgot to add water to the rice the first time so the plastic bowl melted. The second time he got it right and with the chicken bouillon cube added by another, they said it was delicious. Ours wasn't bad either at the mess hall, but the creativity here is a wonder to behold.

Inmates who have access to the hobby craft room can make leather wallets--but the sign in the commissary says they are contraband and will be confiscated. So you can make them but can't "give" them to anyone here
because they assume you bartered them for something.

Because tobacco products were outlawed on January 1, the currency of this realm is stamps. A "book" of stamps (a page of 20 first class stamps) sells for $7.80 in the commissary. One of the guys in the room said, "Why did you pay that much? I can get you a book for $6.00 or if you buy four books at once, for $5 each." Of course, I don't have $6 or $20 in cash for the purchase. You just hand a commissary sheet to the "seller" and he fills out
what he wants worth the $6 or $20 or whatever agreed price and you buy the items for him and then make the swap. Of course all of this has to happen on the QT since it is strictly forbidden to exchange anything here. Wink, wink, nod, nod--until one of the officers decides what to enforce against whom.

Many of the longer-term inmates run some kind of "business" in order to earn money (or equivalents) for commissary purchases. Some buy a 12 pack of soda pop and then sell each can for a stamp or 2. Since each can costs the original buyer less than 29 cents, a profit can be made--especially at 2 stamps/can. The vending machine charges 75 cents each but you have to have the money credits on your card. You can “pay” (stamps) to have your boots shined and your “dress greens” pressed (ironed) for your visits. You can “buy” more stylish “cargo-style” pants for some stamps. Hair cuts at the barber shop are 6 stamps. Extra chicken from lunch, “betting in card games”, a pizza shell from the kitchen bakery all cost stamps. As cigarettes get scarcer, the price goes up- 5 stamps for a commercial one, 2 or 3 stamps for a roll-your-own type. A carton of “store-bought” cigs is now about $200. equivalent in stamps.

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