Dateline: August 17, 2009
CHAIN GANG HUSTLES
There are no more “chain gangs” in Florida per se, but the term lives on, applied to the down and dirty life in prison that continues unabated inside the razorwire fences. Picture a huge dog pound, a barren cage teeming with over a thousand stray dogs of all sizes and shapes collected from across the state.
Each day surly keepers arrive and toss barely enough food into the cage to sustain the thousand-plus hungry beasts. The pit bulls, mastiffs, Rottweilers, Dobermans, and German Shepherds snap, growl, and muscle their way to the food troughs and gorge themselves as fast and hard as they can. The Chihuahuas, toy poodles, Shih Tzus, Yorkies, and other small, weaker, decorative dogs must stand back and wait until the bigger, fiercer dogs are done, hoping they can scrounge the scraps without getting attacked and bitten.
Life in prison has many parallels to that fictional dog pound. “Survival of the fittest” rules. The weak are at the mercy of the strong and heartless. The keepers do little to limit the anarchy. For those prisoners who receive help from family and friends outside, enabling them to buy extra food, supplies, and essentials like soap, shampoo, deodorant, writing paper, stamps, envelopes, shoes, and socks, items taken for granted in society, they must be strong enough to hold onto their possessions from the jackals, robbers, and thieves who prey upon the weak.
For those who have no outside support, their choice is to do without or find a hustle, some way to earn money in prison, to carve off slices of the prison cow for themselves.
For virtually all kinds of hustles that exist in society’s “underground economy,” there are corresponding prison hustles, both legal and illegal, although illegal predominates.
Legal hustles are rare. Fifty men out of 1200 may work at a low-paying prison factory job, such as the Florida PRIDE Prison Industries, furniture factory, print shop, garment factory, auto tag plant, and others scattered singly in various fortunate prisons.
The handful of prisoners who operate the prison canteens, mini-convenience stores that sell junk food and basic necessities to those with money from home, are paid a monthly pittance, which is usually outweighed by the illegal earnings, extending credit at usurious rates for one example. The shoeshine boy and “staff barber,” direct descendants of the former glory days of slavery, also receive monthly pittances on top of tips they receive from guards, along with several hustles they run on the side. The guards usually turn a blind eye to their minor goings-on. One of the unspoken perks of prison staff is access to the inexpensive shoe shines and haircuts available in the staff barber shop. These plum jobs generally go to snitches, who conveniently pass on information behind closed barber shop doors.
Some men sell their trays for cigarettes and cups of coffee. The desire for nicotine and caffeine overrides their hunger. Meals such as baked chicken legs and hamburgers or turkey sausage are prime bartering subjects. Such men who sell their trays are usually rail-thin, a diet fad undiscovered by Jenny Craig.
Food is an overriding concern, and stealing from the kitchen is one of the main preoccupations and money sources. Some prisoners will wrap up their hamburger, stuff it down their pants, and smuggle it back to the housing unit to sell to someone who missed chow or is still hungry. Other men in cahoots with the cook will steal twenty pieces of chicken and attempt to sneak them out of the kitchen. If they are successful, they reap a hefty profit. If they’re caught, they go to confinement for thirty days. No risk, no reward.
Making wine is becoming a lost art in prison. Everyone is locked down more and more, movement is restricted with constant searches and shakedowns, and the easily identifiable smell of fermenting oranges or other fruit have cut back on the wine-making, but hasn’t eliminated it. A huge percentage of alcoholic prisoners fuels the market.
Drug sales and use are endemic. Despite dope-sniffing dogs, urinalysis, widespread snitches and shakedowns, the prisons are filled with drugs. Authorities typically blame the visitors coming to see their loved ones in prison as the main culprits, but everyone knows that is a smokescreen, scapegoats used to cover the drug sales of corrupt guards and other employees who have no qualms about tapping into a ready, captive market. The occasional guard who is snitched out or slips up and is caught bringing in drugs is quickly fired and quietly prosecuted, making barely a ripple on the criminal justice pond. Plea bargains and no mention in the press squelch any public outcry.
Sex sells on the street and in prison. I could write a book about that and probably will. Homosexuality is rampant—some estimate that as many as ninety percent of prisoners engage in homosexuality, although a portion of that number may be otherwise heterosexual husbands and fathers with wives and children who succumb to prison sex to satisfy their urges while inside, living a secret life. They justify their behavior by saying that they aren’t actually homosexuals or gay, and will return to their normal lives upon release, leaving their homosexual lovers behind. Often they take something with them—HIV—and infect their unsuspecting wives with a deadly disease. When that happens, all too often, their secret is out.
There is a large subset of effeminate gay men who actually sell sex, bartering their favors for coffee, food, cigarettes, and other necessities. These men are quite popular. Far more prevalent are the homosexual relationships where one man with money pairs up with a poor homosexual without, like a chain-gang sugar daddy who purchases solo sexual service on a long-term basis. Some of these “business propositions’ evolve into little chain-gang “families,” the “father” paying the bills, subsidizing the “mother” and one, two, or more “children,” younger prisoners they take under their wings and bring along into the incestuous family relationship. It all boils down to money, however. If the “father’s” finances dry up, the “family” quickly scatters.
Some of the traditional prison hustles still hang on, even in the crippled economy which has struck hard in prison. Some men will make beds and clean cells in exchange for cigarettes and cups of coffee. Some prisoners would rather pay someone than to do these chores themselves. Other men wash athletic shoes or personal clothing in their toilets, a primitive, chain gang “washing machine,” and earn their coffee and smokes that way.
The prison laundry harbors one of the best hustles—men pay by the month to have their uniforms washed and pressed, “specials,” and to insure that their laundry bags with underwear, socks, towels and sweatshirts aren’t stolen.
Artists can always make a buck drawing pictures or making birthday cards. At prisons with hobbycraft programs, some prison artists support their families selling artwork. Woodworkers make picture frames and jewelry boxes. Leather workers sell purses and wallets.
Some men run private prison canteens from their cells, extending credit to their customers at a rate of two-to-one. Many prisoners will run up huge bills, struggle to pay them, and “check-in” for protective custody. The large “PC” inmate populations at some prisons are known as the “bankruptcy squad.” The high interest rates charged make up for the frequent losses.
Law clerks and “jailhouse lawyers” reap hefty profits from newly-arrived prisoners desperate for appeals to be filed. Like their “street lawyer” counterparts, many of these “legal experts” are no more than con men, scamming checks from their customers’ families, cranking out fruitless appeals that only damage their chances for relief.
Like their animal world counterparts, men trapped in the chain-gang dog pound must deal with a “dog-eat-dog” world of brutality and subjugation. The weak with money pay “protection” to the strong to keep from being beaten up and robbed. Without protection they are at the mercy of small gangs of marauders, “packs,” who strip them of possessions, so it is advantageous to pay a smaller portion to a “big dog” to act as a “war daddy.” For those small dogs with no resources, subjected to gang rapes by unrepentant sodomizers, submission to one alpha male’s desires is preferable to being passed around by a group. In this hustle, the strongest men gain either canteen purchases or several favors for their primitive protection racket.
Income tax check refunds have been a major hustle and source of cash for decades. Neither the state officials nor feds have been able to staunch the flow of cash from the treasury. Prison con men obtain social security numbers from other men who have been in prison for years, with nothing to lose, and file phony tax returns with refunds into the thousands of dollars. The IRS checks go to addresses outside, where confederates, often prison employees, collect the checks, cash them, and distribute the money.
Gambling constitutes a major prison hustle. Poker games, dominos, Cash-3, football pools, and numerous other activities not only keep a lot of money flowing from losers to winners, but also fuel other illegal activities. Big winners will spend a large chunk on drugs, keeping that economy rolling. Losers will rob, break into lockers, and commit numerous other thefts to get back into the game to recoup their losses. Surprisingly, considering the effect gambling has on thefts and violence, the prison authorities virtually ignore it for some reason.
From just this brief introduction, it should be obvious that that the prisons are modern-day Sodoms and Gomorrahs, cesspits of lawlessness, immorality and degradation, not much different from collections of beasts in dog pounds and zoos. Is it a surprise that humans can revert back so easily to their primitive roots? Perhaps what is more surprising is the fact that even in such a degenerate, perverted environment, a minority of upright men actually resist the evil natures and lead exemplary lives in the midst of such immorality, refusing to compromise their moral values. Unfortunately, it seems that the people involved in determining who is to be released to return to society are as likely to choose the very worst candidates as they are the most law-abiding ones. Is it any wonder that prisons are described as having a revolving door, with men returning as fast as they are released?