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Prisoner Econ 101 (1)…

Medina is a Cuban who left his homeland during the Mariel exodus in 1980.  Having been in jail in Cuba, while not convicted of any crime, he was put on a boat along with many other “criminals.”  He was given an 18 month sentence here on a minor infraction.

When I met Medina working alongside me in UNICOR, he was in his 19th year in federal prison.  Not having any family in the US, immigration simply kept him locked up.  One of many such prisoners.  Medina was long used to dictatorial authority…

He lost no time fending for himself and for his family in Cuba.  At UNICOR, with overtime, he easily makes about $300/month.  He sends almost all of his money home to Cuba.  A Canadian company forwards it for a small fee; the Cuban gov’t takes 10%, which, overall, is a significant income for the state.  Medina also maintains several hustles in prison:  A “store,” laundry, and room cleaning.

Most inmates in federal prison work for the compound facilities:  Ground’s maintenance, welding, woodworking, kitchen, laundry, etc.  They earn from 12-to-24 cents-or-so/hour.  For the real lucky ones–maybe 200 workers out of a 1,000 at any given prison–work for UNICOR, where it exists, at .23-to-$1.15/hour (double for overtime).  There’s usually a two-year waiting list, or longer.

Most prisoners barely earn stamp money, so hustles abound.  Every prison has homemade hootch, which seems to sell consistently for a book of stamps (around $8) for a quart.  Assorted drugs, as the market will bear.  Cigarettes (now a drug-prohibition item), up to $100-and-more per pack.  Then there is gambling, tattooing, sex hustles, enforcement, and other mainline forbidden items and behavior.

Generally the federal prison black-market economy is a relatively open one (within the prisoner community).  Trouble is almost always contained among “players,” those within or between participating individuals and groups.

Other economic activity is generally overlooked by staff—when they feel like it.  These include room cleaning, private laundry, small stores and trade/exchange, clothing alteration, hair braiding…you name it.  If there’s a will and a market, the supply will be found.

We got a big laugh out of the tabloid journalism “exposés” of Leona Helmsley and Martha Stewart being “outed” while they were in prison for having “maids” doing their rooms, laundry, etc.  For us, it’s basic economics.

Think about it:  Some inmates come into prison relatively wealthy (few), some have family and friends send them money, and some have good-paying prison jobs.  If one prisoner can afford to pay another for some item or service and refuses to do so, then s/he’s considered a cheap miser.

It’s a reality of basic prison economics and etiquette.  If you can afford it, you pay for it.  No prisoner would look down on another for his or her hustle.  Quite the opposite.  Class is too close to the bone; arbitrary staff authority holds feudal reign.    And try to cheat someone in prison…see what happens.

Note to Wesley and Lindsay:  Pay the going rate; don’t undermine other prisoners in the enclosed economy…

And don’t be surprised at some of the hustles you’ll see.  At one prison, this guy had a “foot concession.”  After his day job, he’d set up a couple of buckets of hot water in the bath/shower area and some chairs.  Men who wanted their feet massaged, nails clipped, bunions abraded—and 45 minutes-or-so of relaxed, interesting conversation—paid about $5 worth of commissary.

I estimate that this guy probably earned an extra $400/month, making him one of the top earners around.  He found a niche without any competition.  I guarantee you, no one looked down on him in any sense whatsoever.  Nor was he gay.  (And listening to him, I’m convinced people paid as much for the conversation as they did for the service.)

As Medina intends to return home just as soon as he is able to, I churlishly asked him one day, “Do you hope to return to a ‘free’ Cuba?”

He took a moment to process the question, then smiles at my yankee joke. “Mire alrededor de usted.  Usted llama esta libertad?”

No, I don’t call this freedom either.

               Dr. Publico

Category: Cubans
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2 Responses
  1. […] number of the Cubans I knew had decent-paying jobs in UNICOR and/or had prison hustles (stores, cleaning, laundry, etc.) […]

  2. […] When I met him he was in his 19th year of incarceration. (More on his story can be found in a previous article at this […]

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