So after the first few months in prison, if you didn’t come prepared, you are most likely broke. I know I was.
That is on top of reality setting in and realizing I am three months into a 120-month sentence. Even though I said I wouldn’t become a convict, I still had to figure out how to live like one so I could make it through my sentence. So what I did was shut myself off to the outside world, except for a few people and I embraced my new (temporary) life.
I am not saying this was the best or healthiest decision, but it worked for me. I knew my daughter was going to be in good hands regardless of who was taking care of her, so all I had to do is figure out how I was going to make it through alive without going insane.
In prison, there are both written and unwritten rules, which I had to learn to live by to keep me out of trouble from both staff and inmates. It was a learning curve initially, being out of bounds, walking halfway across the compound before I realized it’s closed, missing call-outs because of unexpected compound closures, understanding the gibberish on the loudspeaker, taking a shower without shower shoes, using a mans washcloth to get something off my face, and changing in my cube. These actions caused me both embarrassment from inmates and tongue lashing from staff, but I eventually figured it all out.
I also learned I was never going to make enough money cleaning one shower for $35 per month, so I found ways to make extra money and wouldn’t get me in trouble. This meant selling cigarettes and booze were out of the question because if caught doing so, you would lose good time.
So, I started finding other inmates on orderly details that didn’t want to work, I offered to do their duties for their pay. They don’t have to work and I get some extra spending money, win-win.
After a couple of months, I had about ten different orderly jobs and was making an extra $150 a month. the jobs ranged from a second shower to the east side toilets, the west side sinks, and some floor details in different sections of the unit. The main reason for the needed extra spending money was the food in food service was very hard to get used to.
I was already a pretty gassy person but that was intensified tenfold once I got to Milan. Initially, I got put on food service detail but I couldn’t stand it, as we were locked in food service for our whole shift, and it felt like I was in jail in a prison.
We worked for the first 30 minutes we were there, then the last 30 minutes, but the 3-4 hours in between we were stuck reading or playing cards if the officer on duty allowed it, if they didn’t we were sitting on our thumbs.
In my short time there I did see something else, packaged meat that read, “not fit for human consumption,” or recalled beef or pork that was sold to the BOP. The stuff wouldn’t kill you if you were capable of getting the food down but it was not pretty to look at. After that experience, there were certain meals I just stayed away from.
So it’s safe to say I ate plenty of food off commissary, which costs money, and $35 per month was not going to get me very far. Some other safe hustles I did for extra money that didn’t risk my good time were cleaning cells and washing dishes.
The cleaning of the cells came at the suggestions of one of my new friends, he saw I like to stay busy and mentioned that nobody else is doing it. So, he took me cube to cube and we asked everyone in the unit if they wanted my services. Then we discussed whether it was going to be weekly or bi-weekly, and how much I was going to get paid.
Weekly was 30 stamps a month and bi-weekly was 20 stamps, or a flat book (complete book of stamps). The cells took no more than 15 minutes to clean each, so I could knock out multiple in an hour, and altogether I had about 10-12 contracts.
Stamps were the currency at Milan, you could purchase anything with them, from other inmates. This includes soda’s on the prison yard, use clothing and electronics, and even contraband, such as cigarettes and alcohol.
Not all compounds operate with a stamp currency, when I got to Yankton Federal Prison Camp, their currency was Mackeral, which is a baitfish, similar packaging to tuna, and it cost $1 on commissary. Therefore it worked as a dollar bill on the compound and you could purchase anything with it.
As for washing dishes I am not talking about in the kitchen, inmates do cook-ups in the unit and then there is usually a pile of bowls leftover and they would stack those up on my locker and I would do three washes for a bag of Keefe coffee, which was $2.70 on commissary.
So, now I had my coffee, which was and still is my new drug of choice, food from the commissary, and extra spending money to buy anything else I need off of commissary and could minimize the amount of money I needed to ask my friends and family for, as that is probably the most painful thing to do.
I realized I already let them all down and caused much pain and suffering for my mom and siblings. On top of that, I wasn’t going to beg them all for money constantly, so I suggest trying to figure out how you can take care of yourself first.
Of course, I still got help from my family, but what I suggest is just asking if they are willing to help you out with a monthly contribution and if they do or don’t be grateful either way. Even if they don’t send money there is a good chance they will show their support in other forms. (7 Ways to Support Someone in Prison)
Support other then the money is what counts the most, you will find out later in your prison sentence if you are fortunate enough to have people stick around. The money you can generate, it just might take a little effort and hard work, but visits, phone calls, and letters are not things you can produce yourself.
As for phone calls you have one option and that is various payphones located around the unit, you are allowed 300 minutes in variables of 15-minute calls, and the phones calls range from costing 6 cents per minute ($.90/15 minutes), 21 cents per minute for long-distance ($3.15/15 minutes), and then international which cost $1 per minute.
The pay you make at your job through the initiation will range from 12 cents/hour (grade 4) to 28 cents/hour (grade 1). So when you first start you will probably have to work a whole month to pay for 1/3 of your calls which will most likely be long distance.
If money is not a concern throughout your incarceration then make sure you use these minutes wisely because they can run out fast. As I previously stated I cut off much of the outside world in that first year so I didn’t even know the 300-minute limit existed until somewhere around months 13 or 14.
As I got closer to the door however I realized I had burned through the minutes more often and had to limit myself to four 15 minutes phones calls a week, which usually consists of two to my mom/daughter, then I have two more to fit in each week which vary from different family members such as my sister, my monthly phone call to my buddy Lars, or any number of the friends and family that have supported me throughout my time in prison.
300 minutes is not a lot of time to get much done other than stay involved in the lives of a select few, it’s certainly not enough minutes to get to know your kids, manage a relationship with a spouse or loved one, and it’s definitely not enough time to conduct any sort of business.
There is an additional option but I don’t recommend it. Cell phones, yes, they are present at every level of institutions. They are very expensive to purchase, anywhere from $200-$2,000 (depending on where you’re at) and carry severe penalties if you are caught with one. You lose large amounts of good times, privileges, and you can be taken off the compound and shipped to a higher security prison.
So anyone who is locked up or getting locked up just knows that your phone calls to the outside world will be minimal and set your expectations accordingly, and for anyone who is supporting someone locked up to understand that the time being used to call you is valuable and use it wisely. Why spend those 15 minutes fighting when you can be talking about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness.
Thanks for listening!
Please note that while Coronavirus fiasco goes on, the BOP has ended in-person visiting and expanded telephone time allowances to try and balance the need for family contact while still limiting the spread of Coronavirus inside the prison system.