Michael Winsett

When it comes to the prison economics of prison, you have to live inside here to understand it. For example, inmates use “postage stamps” as poker chips. At the end of the night, you can keep the postage stamps or cash out the postage stamps for other items.

Then there’s those inmates who run “inmate stores.” [EDITOR’s NOTE: The prison commissary is usually only open a few hours a week, so inmates with available funds will stock up on commissary goods and sell them to inmates at a drastic markup in the off-hours.] Say the “store man” gives you an 80 cents honeybun, and next week when you order store [items from prison commissary], the store man wants the cost of the honey bun back – $.80 – plus half of what the honey bun costs, so another 40 cents. So the store man expects $1.20 back. But how you pay him back always depends on what the store man wants back to stock his prison store. For instance, he may want a bag of $1.20 chips instead.

The prison store man also knows how to “wash his money” – make it clean. Here’s how he does it. He buys $100 worth of items from the commissary. He then sells these items in exchange for postage stamps, at his usual rate of time and a half.

Let’s say you want to buy a $.95 candy bar. The store man will charge you three $.49 postage stamps for a $.95 candy bar. So the store man makes a $.52 profit.

After selling $100 worth of store items for $152 worth of stamps, the store man will put all the stamps in an envelope and mail them to his girlfriend, sister, mother, or whoever helps him. They sell the postage stamps at face value and send the money back into the prison to the store man’s commissary account. So now the store man can buy more items and fill his store up again.

In one year, the store man can make $900-$1000.

But wait, there’s more! If an inmate owes a drug debt or poker debt and can’t pay right away, the store man will come to his rescue for a small fee. For instance, let’s say an inmate owes a $200 debt. The store man will pay the $200 debt with store items, and later on when the inmate receives money, he will have to pay the store man $300 ($200 for the debt and $100 interest.)

This saves the inmate who is in debt from an ass whipping or even worse, from being stabbed or killed. But that’s not it! The store man will also loan you money and set up an installment plan that’s affordable for you.

If you owe $300 to the store man for whatever reason and you only receive $75.00 per month from your family, etc., the store man will gladly set up a $25.00 per month installment until the full balance is paid.

Sometimes there’s more than one store man. Sometimes a store man may only sell certain items, like candy and sweets. Another may only sell hygiene items, etc.

Don’t miss Michael Winsett’s story: How The Alteratives to Violence Project Changed My Everything 

The downside? I’ve seen store men get taken to solitary lockup for being accused of running a store in prison. And what happens to him will depend on how he conducted business, kept his receipts and treated other inmates. Usually if a store man is cool with other inmates and doesn’t sweat inmates to pay him, he can survive.

But if he rushes inmates to pay him and threatens people, he will eventually get snitched on and a new store man will pop up.

Michael Winsett is now free, thriving on the outside and working as a peer support counselor helping other inmates. And he loves what he does!