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Day 44

Saturday, March 18, 2000

Jail House economics 101.

There is no money allowed in jail. That is not to say nothing is of value. As I already mentioned, commissary items such as candy, notepads, sodas, even radios, can be purchased on account. One of your friends or family places money on your account. Then you fill out an order form, the amount is deducted off your account and the items are delivered to you

Once those items are on the inside, they are legal tender. Services such as hair braiding or, in my case, legal letter writing, can be purchased for items. I never charged anyone to write a letter for them, but many said I should, and those I wrote for expected to be charged and ended up giving me an item anyway. Other items can be traded for items as well, such as two bags of chips for a cherry roll, or two candy bars for an old deck of cards.

Even if you have no money on your account, you're not to be left out, although your purchase power isn't as great. You can, for example, trade your desert cake to someone if you can find someone willing. Or you can trade a whole meal tray. Generally a breakfast tray consisting of eggs, grits, sausage and bread is worth roughly one bag of chips or candy bar. However, if breakfast consists of two waffles, syrup, oatmeal and sausage, the waffles and syrup alone can be worth one or two items. A carton of milk can be worth an item to a milk lover, like me. I frequently trade sausage and grits for a milk.

Then there's the C-note of jail currency. It's also revered as the illegal drug of the jailhouse. Of course, I'm talking about the cigarette. Ever since they outlawed smoking in jail, a cigarette can bring a handsome price. It can be traded whole for between 8 and 12 items. Broken up and divided into three "roll ups", it can go for even more, if buyers pay five items per roll up.

Now, knowing what we know about jailhouse economics, lets look at this PURELY HYPOTHETICAL sample word problem for the benefit of obtaining a better understanding of the economic structure of the jail. As I said before, this sample is for educational purposes only and in no way, shape, or form is intended to resemble any real events. Having made that perfectly clear, let us begin.

Suppose there are four men in the hole. Suppose that in the hole, there is a hole in the wall where a fan used to be. Now it just leads outside. Now suppose that a construction crew is erecting a wall or scaffolding just on the other side of that hole.

Having establishe that purely made up scenario, let us assume these four inmates, being unable to have any commissary since they're in the hole, have an entrepreneurial spirit. Let's also assume all construction workers smoke.

Let's say one of the inmates yells out the fan cover and asks the man laying cinderblocks for a cigarette, As he begins to comply, let's say another inmate asks for one as well. Assuming that our fictional construction worker is a generous man, let's say he hands two cigarettes through the metal cover. Now our imaginary friends have the most valuable item in jail.

Just one of these cigarettes could be auctioned off for, say three cherry rolls, three bags of chips and two candy bars, and three cinnamon rolls. Then let's say a different construction worker gives one unlit cigarette, and one lit, about two thirds remaining.

Using proper jailhouse ettiquite, the inmates share the lit cigarette among themselves, although two don't smoke, so let's say two share the lit one. The unlit one fetches a price of six bags of chips, two candy bars and a deck of cards.

One batch at a time, these items are passed beneath the imaginary cell door, and these make believe cigarettes are passed to their new owners, who can resell at a higher price, or be shared with others later for I.O.U. products or services. How to light the cigarette is the problem of the new owners. Our sample inmates don't sell lighters or matches.

Once the commissary items are brought into the cell, they are evenly divided among the inmates who speak of their good fortune as they devour their goods. They would, in theory, enjoy these snacks since they aren't allowed to have snack food in the hole.

Now, keeping with our word problem, let's translate this scenario's margin of profit. Our friends paid out a total of absolutely nothing. In exchange, they received 3 cherry rolls and 3 cinnamin rolls each valued at $0.70 each, for a total value of $4.20. They received fourteen bags of chips worth 0.50 a piece for a total value of $7.00. Then you have six candy bars at $0.65 each for $3.90, and finally a deck of cards worth $2.00. All together our young entrepreneurs turned three free cigarettes into $17.10 worth of snack food.

And there you have today's lesson in Jail Economics 101. We'll wrap up this exercise with a hypothetical happy ending. We can imagine that our four young economists played cards long into the night stuffing themselves with junk food.

Man, how I wish something like that could happen to us.

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