Friday, February 19, 2010

#57 Y do inmates hustle? (retro)

Prison Talk: Y do inmates “hustle”

You know, there is a music channel that plays disco music, and I often times like to let that run while I play some of my video games or with other friends in the house…really upbeat kinda stuff there, and one of the songs was one called, “The Hustle”. I heard it was a really big song back then.

Well, it’s odd because the term in prison has nothing to do with dancing, but rather making another quarter or two. And since I got a few emails from some readers who were worried in their son or husband doing that, I figured we might as well talk about that.

This is actually one of those gray area topics, because I won’t lie to you, it is against the rules in practically any prison. But the balance on it is that sometimes it is necessary.

I want to spend some time talking with you about the “hustle” in prison, and try to give you as much intel as I can on it. Now, in my Oxford American Dictionary, the term “hustle” is a slang term that means, “to earn a living by dishonest or questionable pursuits”.

So by the definition, this is a very wrong thing to do. Well, if it is so wrong, then why do inmates do it? It just seems that a person in prison that does these things are clearly ignorant of the rules and refuse to change. It almost identifies an inmate as exactly what he is…a menace to society, destined to never change his habits.

Uh…I don’t quite buy into all that.

But I see some of the points in it.

So we’re going to have to discuss the nature of the “hustle” and why guys do it. Now, I cannot speak for any other inmate or ex inmate except myself, and those I knew, so I am using my experience to try to help you understand what is really going on in the prison world when it comes to a hustle.

First off, we need to define some ways that an inmate can actually do this. If you work in the prison cafeteria, that is not a hustle, that is a prison job. But if you take food out of the kitchen to sell to other inmates, THAT is a hustle.

If you work in the prison clothes house, that is not a hustle, that is a prison job. But if you set aside the NEW clothes for yourself, and sell them to inmates who want to “look good” while in prison or during visitation, THAT is a hustle.

If you work as the prison canteen operator, that is not a hustle, that is a prison job, but if you give “store credit” to inmates, or make special trips after hours for them, THAT is a hustle.

See, many people think that any inmate making a penny in prison is doing a hustle, but that is not true. Prisons all over the country have jobs to keep the inmates occupied while doing their time, but when the inmate takes the initiative to make a “little on the side”, then it becomes a hustle.

But these go even further. Any service that is given by an inmate that is not according to prison rules is indeed a hustle. If in an inmate does hair for another, that is a hustle. If an inmate draws pictures for others, that is a hustle. If they write poems for money, that is a hustle. Anything done in this form for money or barter is considered a hustle, and on almost any prison, is against the rules.

Me personally, I cannot sit here and say I never did it. It was my honest intention to not do it but I will explain why I did later. But as I recall my time in prison, I did indeed engage in several hustles. I sold some of my Pentel pens, I sold designer paper, I wrote poems for inmates, things like that.

Do I regret it…not at all.

By definition, I was clearing in the wrong because technically I was earning a living by dishonest or questionable pursuits. By prison rules, this is wrong, yet why did I do it, KNOWING it was against the rules?

Why does any inmate hustle when they know it is against the rules?

I think the answer lies in two ideas; that they may actually need a few more dollars, and that they need something to do. A lot of you many not fully understand what I mean by this, so I hope to clarify it with you.

Nobody likes to just sit and sit and sit. You get bored and then you feel nervous, wanting to DO something. Kids are like that all the time, it is impossible to have them sit still for awhile because they are always wanting to do something. And “doing something” is not what you want. If a kid comes to you and says he is bored, you might think that he can go take out the trash or rake some leaves. Technically that is something to do, but that is not what HE wants to do.

So boredom is not just about filling the void, it’s about giving that person something he or she wants to do. In prison, it works the same way. Many of those guys are sitting there, passing time. Their freedom is compromised by their incarceration, so it’s not like they can put on some regular clothes and tell the guard to let them out so they can go walk around the mall for an hour or two.

Boredom is just as much in prison as anywhere else. If I can get bored in my living room, then anybody can be bored anywhere else. Heck, even with a bunch of video games, I can be bored and get stagnant. Just imagine how it is in prison for your loved one? So what can these guys do to take their minds off the boredom and the constant that is prison?

Well, there are activities for inmates. Many prisons have a library so they can check out a book, there are weight piles and things for inmates to do outside. Many inmates play cards or dominoes and many inmates have prison jobs. It all seems like there is plenty to do for inmates, but that is not so true. Even with all this, an inmate can still get bored.

With me, I could always amuse myself by writing, or just going out on the yard and walking laps, but there were still times I felt like I could do something more. That level of emptiness will vary from one inmate to another, but many will feel that they can do something “worthwhile”.

And therein is the counter to the definition. By definition, a hustle is “dishonorable and questionable”, but I just said that to the inmate himself, it is “worthwhile”. It has value to him or her, because it gives them something to do. See, even in prison, guys are looking for things too keep them occupied, and if possible, also constructive as well.

“Well, I don’t see how a criminal can be constructive making cards to sell”

That’s because you don’t know the world he lives in. I cannot say enough how very different the world of prison is to the real world. Lots of things that apply to regular society do not apply so much in prison. I mean, if you bought a new television and then sold your old one to a friend, do you report your taxes on that?


There are lots of things the common everyday citizen take for granted that could easily be called into question if somebody really, really wanted to do so. No different in prison. And even knowing this, I will say to you that many prisons KNOW that inmates are hustling, but don’t do anything about it.


Because it keeps the peace.

The easiest and most ignorant thing for a person so say about prison is that inmates deserve whatever they get. These people believe that inmates ought to sit in prison, bust rocks, eat one meal a day and wear the same clothes 6 out of 7 days a week.

I challenge any person who says that to be a prison guard…you would not last a week. Why? Because the morale of the inmates would be so low, it would be a war zone. I mentioned that one of the reasons for prison jobs is to keep the inmates occupied, this can actually go for hustles too. If an inmate is busy drawing or making cards, he is then being occupied by something constructive. For many inmates, we are talking about something that gives them a purpose in the day. To some, it is just the joy of creating stuff, for others, the hope of making a few dollars, to yet others, just something to take their mind off prison for a few hours.

This does not change the idea that an inmate still has to do his time, but if the idea was to make prison the absolute worst place on earth, then I warn every one of you of who they release. Treat in inmate like a dog, and that is what you will get when he is released. Prison has just as much a responsibility to rehabilitate as to incarcerate, but most folks don’t even understand that second part.

So as odd as it sounds, the hustles of prison actually is more a part of rehabilitation than one can imagine. For me, I could hone on my writing by selling poems. Yes, it is against the rules to write a poem and sell it for a dollar or a couple of snacks, but if you look deeper in that hustle, you will see several constructive things.

One, I was writing, which is never a bad thing (well, sometimes..) and few can debate that this wasn’t constructive. Two, I was in fact helping another inmate. Argue if you will that I was doing it for the money, but I wrote many poems for guys who wanted their mothers to know that they were doing ok. I wrote poems for inmates who had a little daughter or son that they wanted to show feelings for. Many guys in prison just don’t know exactly how to say what they want to say, and I helped some of those guys out.

By doing that, I helped to create a level of peace with another inmate. No I didn’t change the world, but for a few days, I changed one person who really appreciated what I did. That in turn creates a level of calm in the prison.

Three, I made a couple of dollars or a few snacks, which kept ME at peace. It is almost a win/win situation all the way around in the hustle. Folks what I am implying here is that even though it was against the rules, it was very helpful to a lot of guys. No officer working in prison wants to walk into a prison full of very upset and angry guys. The warden of the prison could care less, because he is not in the midst of those inmates, but the average prison guard with no rank is. And if he or she feels that letting the inmates get away with a few things is ok, as long as it is not a blatant disregard of the rules, then it is fine with them.

“Then what IS the blatant disregard you are talking about?”

If you are going to do a hustle, keep it as private as you can. You can draw cards as much as you want in the dayroom, and every officer looking can know that you intend to sell it, but as long as you don’t make those transactions in their presence, it is fine.

And let’s not be foolish, prison guards KNOW when guys are hustling. They’ve seen it before when inmates do stuff and see the pattern. Nobody makes a bunch of cards just for the heck of it. Nobody spends a few hours drawing somebody else’s mother or wife for nothing. Prison guards know this, but many are willing to “turn the other way” as long as the inmate respects the guard and not make it so obvious.

If you read my first and second books of “Grades of Honor”, you know what I mean by some of this, but one thing I didn’t mention here is that not all hustles are so “honorable”. To many guys, gambling is a form of a hustle, and that is just as much against the rules as bartering. I will admit, I did it a couple of times too, but I might explain why I did it in another blog.

So I hope I kinda touched on some of this and turned on a few lights for you. I know many of you worry about your loved one breaking the rules for a “hustle”, but if it helps, sometimes it can really get your loved one through a day, or a week. Trust me, when I wrote poems for other inmates, it gave me a sense of purpose each day. Every day was an opportunity to write another poem, and get another dollar so I could go to canteen. When you don’t get money sent to you very often, it sometimes becomes necessary to have a couple of dollars in your pocket to buy a razor, or a cold soda, or some real lotion…not that generic stuff they call lotion.

Is it dishonorable? I don’t know, because you’d have to define that inside the prison and what inmate hustles with what idea. Is it questionable? Sure, since it is against the rules. But I say to you, sometimes it gets you through the day and makes your incarceration much easier than if you didn’t.

Anyway, that’s it for now, email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com to ask me about other prison issues or to ask about my books and other products. Or email me to ask how you can support my blogs; I am always very, very thankful for those who are supporting my blogs, and there are no words I can share that says, “thank you” enough.

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