Things I thought

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Day 6 - Prisonomics

Here, as far as I can gather, is how the prison economy works.
Every Sunday (today) our captors furnish us with a “canteen sheet”. This is a double sided A4 list of purchasable sundries, ranging from chocolate to tweezers, playing cards to bibles, super noodles to shaving foam. The most important items are phone credit (40p a minute) and tobacco (“burn” in prison parlance), both of which make appearances at the top of the canteen sheet.
Convicted enemies of the state, such as myself, get a maximum canteen spend of £17 a week (to come out of any money we’ve brought in with us or earned inside) whilst prisoners on remand, like Splinter, can spend as much as they like. I invest in some chocolate, paper, stamps and tangfastics then sink the rest of my liquidity into the blue chips: coffee and burn.
Tobacco is the currency of choice here in jail for one simple reason: most people smoke. Even if you don’t, there will always a market for the lethal stuff, so it makes an excellent, if short term, store of value. So far I’ve traded burn for paper, pens, stamps, sexual favours, semtex and coffee.
Coffee acts as the prison’s second currency of note, the Euro to burn’s Dollar, though there is less demand for it and most inmates are looking to trade coffee for burn rather than the other way round. Of course, in our barter based system anything can have value to the right customer, and I’ve made a range of happy trades swapping jam, salt and porridge (yes, I know) for stuff that I actually want.
Another item in seemingly high demand is tin foil and its substitutes – yoghurt lids, polo wrappers etc. I’ve yet to actually be offered drugs here but the shadows of the black economy fall long away from the searching eyes of the screws. I couldn’t tell you exactly how drug deals work inside but I’m guessing that, as the price of skag comes in a fair bit dearer than £17 a week, most money changes hands on the outside – just get your people to talk to theirs. A lot of stuff can be bought this way, though the import tariffs here are steep – a bog standard mobile phone is £250-£300 (still cost effective compared to the payphones) and a gram of skunk will set you back £50, around five times street value.
However, there is one drug that the prison’s awash with, and it’s absolutely free. Methadone maintenance programs are Wandsworth’s quick fix for dealing with junkies: heroin users who don’t opt for detox are shuffled onto D wing, where their “treatment” awaits, along with a whole cornucopia of commercially available chemical delights. Absurdly, the methadone maintenance program stops abruptly when users leave jail: shivering junkies are turfed out onto the street , told sternly not to reoffend and given £47 to start a new life with. NHS waiting lists for methadone can be weeks long – many will be back inside before the wait is up.
Methadone is unpopular even amongst those who take it. Many of my new junky pals describe it as harder to quit than smack and resent the prison for providing them with this chemical cosh. If you’ve been using on the outside you’re often entered onto a programme without consultation, a cruel temptation for those I’ve met who see their periodic visits to jail as rare opportunities to give their bodies a break.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. With the death of EMA, jail is now the only place in Britain that still values education, and you can earn as much as 90 pence per three hour session learning a variety of trades. Inmates can train in anything from plastery to radio production (at our in-house station “radio wanno”). Private companies have seen a chance to make a buck too, and Timpsons (the key/shoe making people) provide a range of courses which then offer you the chance to do some unpaid work for them on the outside, followed by the somewhat dubious promise of a full time position.
There are inside jobs, too, paying similarly princely sums for your time. You can work as a cleaner, cook, orderly, wing rep, or anything else the screws are too lazy, apathetic or incompetent to do themselves. I shouldn’t badmouth these posts too much – they represent one of the few useful ways to spend your time inside, and speaking to an orderly is generally far more pleasant and productive than trying to convince the guards to do their jobs. Yet however helpful they may be, some lags see prisoners who take these positions as no better than collaborators, an image which isn’t helped by the fact that they come with an impressive range of perks, from a break room with a plasma TV in it to all the sly burn you can… er… burn.
The prison economy usually functions fairly well but ran into trouble recently after a group of rogue orderlies began lending large quantities of tobacco to inmates with the promise they’d hit them back a few snouts once they got their canteen through. Demand for these credit-fag swaps was high, so high that orderlies were soon raiding the store cupboard to feed Wandsworth’s appetite for cheap burn. By the time the scale of the problem became clear, it was already too late. The two bed properties many lags had put down as collateral turned out to be worthless as they already belonged to the prison. The Governor has authorized several costly bailouts in an effort to put an end to the crisis, but the prisoners smoked those too. As I write this, A and C wing teeter on the brink of default and, for the first time, E wing risks losing its coveted triple “Aaargh!” status. In just a few short hours, canteen forms are due back at the landing office and the tension on the wings is palpable.
So ends day 6.

For a somewhat less abstract blog about day 7, click here


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  2. I'm surprised no one has commented yet, so I will. Well done you for keeping your spirits high, and writing with such flair and imagination.

    Isn't it a strange state of affairs indeed? It would seem that at the end of the day no one really gives a shit, as long as the 'criminals' are locked up and out of sight, out of mind.

  3. I'll admit, I've heard a lot of crap about you Mr Marbles, about your epic pieplex of Count Murdoch. After reading your blog, I feel I've gotton to know you a little and have made my mind up that you're an alright bloke.

    Thanks for keeping us updated and I'm glad to hear that adult prisons are so much more sane than the Young Offenders' places. Keep up the good work, Brother. :)

  4. I'm checking in every day as I wait to see how you're coping with the tedium*. I hope you're well.

    *preferable to excitement in "the big house" I think