The Prison Economy from the Inside

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The author receiving the Generation Next Leadership Award from the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation in February

Nineteen-year-old Shamar Betts of Urbana had no previous criminal record when he was arrested for “inciting a riot” via a Facebook post he wrote after witnessing the video of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. He was sentenced to three years in federal prison and made responsible for all the property damage and theft ($1.68 million) committed across town during that time of national anger. This second excerpt (the first appeared in the November/December 2023 Public i) from his forthcoming memoir describes how he supported himself while in United States Penitentiary Hazelton.

You need people outside jail for money. You call your people outside and ask them to put money on your account so you can go buy your stuff. They have underwear and socks for free, but not toiletries. You have to buy those. And there are other things people want or have to pay for. If you want the cell with a TV view, you maybe pay $2500. Or you might just need to pay for people to leave you alone.

Since my people weren’t really able to help me, I had to do things on my own. In the county jail I had a job in the laundry, so I could earn a little money ($1 an hour) for the things I needed. In the federal jail I did need some money from outside, but I also tried to make the money I needed. I never had a job given to me, but I had jobs I made up myself. For example, I used to cook. I’d make cheesecake and then go out and sell it at chow. I could make twenty-five dollars from a cheesecake.

You make cheesecake out of coffee creamer, that’s the base. Sometimes I put cappuccino in it, the powder cappuccino that you can whip up, or I used crushed up cookies for flavor. I used water, or sometimes the milk you get at chow. I could buy cream cheese and candies that I would melt and whip in, or even crush some on the top. The filling I made was like actual cheesecake. I used the cakes they sell at chow to make the crust and suddenly you have a cheesecake.

I would cut it into pieces and walk around the card tables to sell it. There is always a poker table, a spade table, a pretty lady table—someone is definitely going to be doing that game. Sometimes everybody on the unit would stand around watching the hands and I would just walk around selling my cheesecake.

All day people are cooking. Noodles, pizza, burritos . . . There are other things to buy and sell, but a lot of it is food. You have to be creative. I had to learn how to boil water through the light switch. You take the switch off, you get two wires from someone who works in mechanics and put them in the holes, connect a metal piece at the bottom, and put that in a bucket so it boils the water. That’s a “stinger.” I guess they call it that because you can get stung. If you put the wires in the wrong side or touch the wrong thing it can blow up in your face. It certainly blew up on me a few times. With the stinger going you can put some rice in a bag, drop it in and wait until it boils, then pull it out when it’s done.

To fry things, we made candles out of pop cans. We put Vaseline in them and a wick in where the pop is. It will burn all day if there is grease or Vaseline in there. You put those under the table (first you had to scrape it down to the metal) and you have a grill. That’s how I made burritos and fried them to sell.

In the beginning I didn’t know how to do any of this. I was just waiting for the food to come through with the trays, but because I’m a vegetarian I couldn’t eat any of it. I had some protein shakes, and some sweets, but I had to buy those, and I tried not to spend a lot of money on food. So I wasn’t really eating until I learned about the stingers. If you’ve got those things, you can cook a meal.

I didn’t mind cooking, I always liked it. My older brother didn’t cook and my sister was too young, so I did a lot of cooking when my Mom was at work. I did a lot of cooking after she passed away.

USP Hazelton, in West. Virginia, has been plagued by violence and understaffing

At Hazelton some people made money betting on cards or on national sports on TV. I bet on sports, but more for fun than anything. Before the game comes on, they make little papers with the schedule and the teams. When you get your paper, you write your teams in, give them a stamp or some food and you’re in. I don’t eat meat, so I would just save my food for snap. That is when you put a food item in the bin and if your team wins, or if the five teams you picked on the ticket win, you get back triple or quadruple.

We had free phone calls inside so sometimes I sold my phone calls. I didn’t have a lot of people to call.

The jail economy is way more expensive than outside. For example, a pack of cigarettes is five hundred dollars. But one cigarette is fifty dollars. So if someone buys that pack for $500 they can sell it all for $1000 because there are twenty cigarettes in that pack. So you call your people and get them to send money, then tell a guard, “I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you get me 10 packs of cigarettes.“ The inmate is going to make 10,000 dollars, but the guard is going to spend a little over $100 and make $1000 back.

That is how everything gets in there. Drugs, cigarettes, phones. The inmates are bribing the guards. A regular Android phone costs like $4000. An iPhone costs about $8000, at least ten times the outside prices. Are you allowed to have them? No, but the guards sneak them in.

It’s those who don’t have people outside at all that are the worst off. They are going around all day offering “I’ll wash your clothes” or whatever, because they don’t have anything. You can tell how sad they are.

I gave one guy a flat (about eight dollars) for forty milks. I put him on a contract that he owed me forty milks. Milks are free at chow, but I wasn’t going down to breakfast so it helped him out to bring me milks.

At Hazelton I didn’t really need much money. I was OK. But the real problem was the violence.


Shamar Betts is a Constituent Services Intern with IL Rep. Carole Ammons (D-Urbana) and DREAAM (Driven to Reach Excellence & Academic Achievement for Males) employee.

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