Thursday, February 18, 2010

#45 Questions about prison 2 (retro)

Questions about prison

Well, here I am again….

My apologies to those loyal readers of my blog. I had to take a week away from writing and even checking emails because I had to step back and try to find a focus on the writing. I just didn’t feel right in how it was going, so I spent some time taking my mind off prison blogging. When I came back, I found many emails from new readers, and this really gives me a new purpose to get back to the heart of the prison writing.

Today I want to touch on a question a reader asked me, actually three questions. This one I will make kinda specific since she indicated that her loved one is at Tyrrell Prison Work Farm, a place I have actually spent time in. So I can answer her questions a bit more clearly, but I can still write in a way that many of you with loved ones in prison can still understand.

She asks me three questions, being these:

1. What do inmates do with money sent to them?

2. Are illegal drugs available?

3. What’s the deal with canteen?

I say to you, no question is too silly…well, if you ask me how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop, then we’re gonna have problems.

So let’s talk about these three questions, starting with the first one. What DO inmates do with the money sent to them?

Remember folks, I am answering this as one who WAS an inmate at Tyrrell, and even though some time has passed, I still remember some things about it. Good thing I kept journals about that place.

Now to get into the question, remember that some camps are what are called “card” camps and some are “cash” camps. The difference being that one allows money to actually touch the inmate, the other does not. One allows inmates to actually use money, the other has inmates using their ID like a debit card.

Tyrrell, last I was there, was a cash camp, so we were allowed to have money. But what do inmates do with money? There are actually several ways to answer that. If for example I got $50 from my mom, what would I do with that money? There are basically three things I can do with it, other than just leave it in the inmate account (which draws NO interest). I can buy things with it, pay off debts with it, or gamble with it… oh wait, I can also LOAN it out.

Some guys in prison do loan money out, maybe a few dollars here or there to other inmates for a high return. It’s a risky venture, and obviously not legal in prison, but some do it anyway. If I loaned somebody $5, I would expect $10 back, or whatever I deemed necessary since it is my money I am loaning. Personally speaking, I didn’t know of any doing that at Tyrrell, and I was never one to be a loan shark anyway. I might give a friend a dollar or two, or give him some canteen, but I never loaned money on the idea of a high return.

Some inmates also gamble with that money, which will obviously be a big frown to many of you. I can understand your frustration if you sent your loved one your last $20 and he is on the yard betting on the Packers/Bears game, or have money tied up on some basketball ticket. I will admit, I have gambled a number of times because I felt I could win a few more bucks or win some extra canteen. But outside of that, sometimes gambling took my mind off my problems while in prison. Sometimes you just need a diversion, and I found the temporary excitement of trying to win a ticket was better than just being miserable all the time. Sure it is illegal in prison, and lots of guys do it, but that is part of prison.

A third way is to pay debts. To me, this was an area I never wanted to cross. To me, I never wanted to owe anybody, so if I didn’t have the money to buy it, I went without it. And believe me, there were times where I could have used a snack or two late in the evening or just before lights out, but my honor would not allow me to borrow. But many guys do borrow, and when they get money, it is their obligation to pay back what they owe. If a guy borrowed food from the canteen man, he owes him back double. If a guy drew a portrait of somebody for an inmate, he has to pay him. If a guy shines your boots, you owe him. There are many different “unofficial” jobs in prison where inmates are paid. Favors done may expect payment. So when an inmate gets money, he has to first figure out who he owes, and pay them. One of the worst things you can do in prison is not pay your debts. In some cases it can be quite dangerous.

As for me, I never bothered to borrow because I didn’t want to be in that situation to have to owe. At Tyrrell, it is just as common as any other prison. When pay day comes, guys get their money and have to do the business of managing their money. For many, it is gone as soon as they get it because their debts are greater than their financial standing.

The final answer to this question is the most obvious. It is one I did quite a lot. Most times when inmates get money, they spend it, but to be more specific, they spend it in canteen. That kinda goes to the third question asked, so I will tie both together here.

Canteen is kinda like the “prison store”, or if you can imagine this, think of the concession stands you go to when you go to a sporting event or a concert. Prison canteens are a little like that, but not nearly as glamorous. Each prison’s canteen is different; for example Tyrrell has two canteens. Some prisons have one, some have more than two. One thing I liked about Tyrrell was the fact that they sold Coca-Cola products by the 20 ounce bottle for 75 cents. In fact, many times the officers would cut in line to save a quarter and buy a soda, which ticked me off many times.

Prison canteens sell a great variety of stuff, from personal hygiene like razors, lotion, toothpaste and the like, to snacks, sodas and even extra stuff like pens, writing pads and things like that. But depending on which state you live, inmates can actually buy more expensive items, like quality sports shoes, or a radio. Some states you can by a television, or microwave. NC isn’t one of those, inmates are allowed to buy, when I was last there, Converse shoes and a cheap RCA Radio.

The prison canteen could have some of everything, from Pop Tarts, Little Debbie cakes, ramen, microwave popcorn, ice cream, microwave sandwiches, coffee and many other products. As far as I remember, no prison I have been in allowed gum, so you’re not likely to find any there. But for a guy like me, one who loved writing, I spent a lot of money on stamps. If you have read some of my older blogs, you know how many letters I sent out while in prison. Several hundred, to be sure.

So what does an inmate do with that money? Well, lots of things, but most of the time, they use it to buy things from the canteen. When I got money while I was at Tyrrell, I always made a trip to get a soda. When I was there in Columbia, NC, it was late spring heading into the summer, and it got pretty warm out there. I usually bought some chips and ramen, so I could have something to eat just in case the last meal in the chow hall was not on point. Believe me folks, it pays to have a back up plan sometimes.

And I say that as a guy who actually was WORKING in the kitchen at Tyrrell, so I know what I am talking about. No, the meals were not garbage, it was just that when you eat dinner at 4:30pm, it leaves too much time before breakfast the next morning. So it helps to have a few snacks in the locker to tide you over.

Well, I answered two questions, let’s tackle the third. Are illegal drugs available? As a guy that has never used illegal drugs, it would be silly for me to assume that was not true. We KNOW that illegal drugs do make their way into prison, but don’t ask me how. The closest I ever came to taking illegal drugs was asking another inmate for ibuprohen when I had a headache. But let’s not fool ourselves to think that it cannot happen in prison, because it DOES happen in prison.

I am not a believer that it is EASIER to get drugs in prison than on the streets, to me that is foolish. We are not debating that inmate CAN’T get drugs, we know they can, but no man or woman living or dead will ever convince me that it is easier to get drugs while you are in prison than on the street. There are just too many obstacles in prison to keep it from being “Drug Town USA”. Random urine tests, random locker searches and sometimes a whole shakedown make it pretty hard for an inmate to just sit there with drugs as if they are free.

But it IS possible. Are illegal drugs available? Unfortunately, yes, if you know the right people in prison. But again I say, it is NOT as easy as walking down the street in a certain neighborhood and getting it off the corner, or having a friend drive over and bring it to you. The checks and balances in prison are a lot tougher than in society. If you really wanted drugs bad enough, you can find them on the street or in prison. But of the two, your chances of getting it in prison are harder. Not impossible, but harder.

I honestly cannot say I know anything about this at any prison I have been on, because that was never me. But again, illegal drugs can be available if an inmate really looks for it. Sad to say, but true.

Anyway, that answers the questions and I hope it helped you a bit. Oh, one person asked me about my prison books, I used to have a prison book site, but I took it down because I was almost ready to delete all my prison blogs, and actually did except this one here. All my other prison blogs are gone, and that includes my book site. Now, I still can provide those books, just email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com and ask me about it. Hope to hear from some of you soon.

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