So, you just arrived in prison, the law mandated that your life must suck, and you want to find some way to enjoy it just a little more. Little did you know, there’s an underground prison economy and, just like in the free world, you can pretty much get whatever you want as long as you can afford it. Supply, demand, and inflation? They’re all here, in prison. 

You want a mental vacation (i.e., drugs)? What’s your preference? Meth? Weed? Pills? K-2? Is heroin your ‘thing’? You want some ground beef from the chow hall – or maybe fresh fruit?  Need someone to clean your fan? Make a birthday card for your daughter? Need a cash advance so you can pay your gambling debts or buy something from the commissary? 

There are ways of getting all of it. You just have to figure out what you can barter. 

Like in politics, anything can be leveraged in prison. What kind of reach, skills, influence, or ability to induce fear in others can you provide? What kind of skills are you willing to use in exchange for money in your prison account, drugs, or provolone cheese?

On a good day, should I ask through the prison ‘grape-vine’. I could find you some crystal-meth, heroin, or marijuana. I also could find a pound of ground beef, an onion, or a cellphone 

I could get you a session with a prison tattoo-artist, a good haircut, or a bookie with whom to bet on the next football game. I could get you a professional-quality painted portrait of your loved ones, custom greeting cards, or someone who can drive your elderly grandfather to prison to visit you. And I’m not even in the mix… you could find all of that too if you know the right person. Prison has its own underground economy, and there are providers of nearly everything inside these walls.

This underground economy runs on gambling, smuggling, extortion/sexual-favors, prison ‘stores’/food, and (surprisingly) art. Whatever you need and whatever you leverage of your own falls into one of these categories or into the generic category of “side-hustles” [more on this later]. You want what someone else has… they want something you can offer.

But first, in regard to the economy, you need to understand how money moves in prison. What is “money” in a place where real, green cash is kept out of your hand by the state?

The vast majority of business in prison is conducted by trade. Almost all prisons have some form of commissary: Commissary goods have a set value, and this is generally the value at which they’re traded. Let’s say Quincy-X comes to me with an onion he stole from the mess hall and Quincy-X wants a dollar for it. In exchange, I’d give him three $0.35 ramen noodles. If Joe owes a $50 gambling debt, then he’s most likely going to pay it off with an assortment of cookies, potato chips, and soaps. For larger amounts of debt, you would need smuggled-in dollar bills, prepaid debit-card numbers, or someone on the outside willing to transfer some funds around … or something else of greater value (e.g., a large amount of drugs, willingness to sell your body, etc.). And if you want to buy Boosie’s smuggled-in cellphone, chances are you’re going to need someone on the outside to send $500 or $1,000 to his sister or directly to his commissary account.

So where does the money and the power come from in prison? Let’s sit down to dinner…

Underground Prison Economy — GAMBLING: 

Gambling is the bread-and-butter of the underground prison economy. Whether it’s betting on individual card-games, organizing poker/card tables or friendly bets on an upcoming game, or forming massive sports “skins” [organized multi-game spread-betting with a prison-bookie], this is how the money flows. Gambling tables are managed by gangs or by entrepreneurial prisoners with inside connections… and they often pull in dozens or even hundreds of dollars a day individually…sometimes tens-of-thousands of dollars a year if managed collectively. Sports-betting is done similarly with a shot-caller or gang running the ticket. Low-level “runners” also go to different areas of the prison to sell the skins and to collect proceeds or distribute winnings.

Underground Prison Economy — PRISON STORES/FOOD: 

If gambling is the bread-and-butter, prison stores are the pork. In general, ‘stores’ focus on loaning out or selling food… which is why stolen food from the mess-hall is important for the economy. Have you seen the massive size and shape of some prisoners?

These boys need to eat. Need a summer-sausage until the next commissary delivery? Go to the store-man, and he’ll charge you between 50%-100% interest for what’s essentially a microloan. Doesn’t sound like much, except he does business with anywhere from one to 20 guys, and some borrow as much as $50 each time. And a store-man provides so much more than mere snacks… he is a micro-loan lender and whom the druggies go to when the prison gets a shipment of heroin and they need to buy some heroin quickly. The store-man is also someone you might go to when the amazing painter down the hall needs some of those drugs so he can create a wall-worthy painting for you…if you can get him $50 r.i.g.h.t. t.h.i.s. m.i.n.u.t.e.

Underground Prison Economy — SMUGGLING: 

If stores are the pork, smuggling (and selling what’s smuggled) is the whole hog. There’s nothing more lucrative than drugs in a prison. Whatever the street-price of a drug is on the street, multiply that cost by a minimum of four. And demand will always exceed supply. Almost any drug will sell. 

You see, enough weed to roll even the smallest joint goes for $20. A dime-bag of heroin goes for $40-$50. In prison, you tend to find more expensive drugs and those with long-lasting effects. You don’t see that much cocaine, but there is lots of heroin and crystal meth. Since around 2016, prisoners started smuggling in large amounts of Suboxone, referred to as “strips”. More recently, “paper-weed”, or K-2, has made up a large part of the prison smuggling/drug market. [see #1]

Fewer cellphones are coming in thanks to the prevalence of cellphone-signal detectors (and due to the fact that they must be thrown over the fence or smuggled in by officers who probably consider cell phones even riskier than smuggling in a smaller packages of drugs), but some cell phones inevitably make it inside.

For smuggling to work, you must have connections on the outside to make it happen. This limits smuggling to gangs or those with close friends/family who are willing to break the law. Once inside, the smuggled items often are sold at a lower markup to middle-men who can finagle money-transfers between $500 and $2,000, and who then sell the product to others…or they are distributed through a gang’s network of members.

Underground Prison Economy — EXTORTION/SEX: 

Extortion and sex are the side dishes of the underground prison economy, and the ones with the greatest potential for violence. Profitable for those few directly involved, you need serious muscle to extort someone or to be a predator and a pimp. Extortion, or protection (or charging “rent”), lies primarily in the domain of gangs or individual gang members. Pimping can be done by gangs, but just as often it is controlled by individual sexual predators…often the largest and most dangerous people you’ll meet in prison. Horrifically, pimping often involves an initial incidence of coerced sex or outright rape. There are also many gay and trans inmates who willingly have sex for money or in order to be cared for financially and physically by “a man”.

Extortion can run between $10 and $200 a month per victim. Prostitution can cost between $2 (there was once an inmate here named “Chip-bag Dave” for this reason) and $50 each time. Dangerous money. Dirty money. Though, for some, there’s a seemingly never-ending supply of prostitution. But, since the passing of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), most prisons have cracked down on sexual acts of any kind.

Underground Prison Economy — ART: 

Art is the dessert of the economy. As a pillar of the prison underworld, this surprises some people, but art encompasses everything from tattooing to legitimate works of really good art, all the way to greeting-card making [see #2]. If I make and sell one hand-drawn birthday card over an hour or two, I already made more money than I would have earned in eight hours working at a prison job. Some inmates make hundreds of dollars a month just off card making, but it’s usually a side-hustle. 

Tattoo artists can easily make the equivalent of $20 an hour and this is the most lucrative job not involving smuggling. The prevalence of tattooed prisoners belies the importance of this part of the prison economy. For instance, my current cellmate is covered from head-to-toe in tattoos, all done in prison, and estimates that he has spent over $1,500 on them over the course of his sentence.

Other kinds of art also can be big in prison. Most prisons allow some kind of art supplies and other craft making. Quality painters regularly sell $100-$200 portraits (I’ve known three painters who’ve had their art displayed and sold in prominent art galleries, despite being incarcerated). The prison I’m currently housed in allows inmates to purchase and craft leather in a special room. I’ve made over a dozen intricately-carved custom leather purses that I’ve sent to loved ones. They’ve then sold them for $100-$350. Some sales are actually legitimate and allowed by the prison, like elaborate jewelry boxes craftily made from cardboard and popsicle sticks, even finely crocheted blankets with your loved ones’ names. But whether legitimate or not, at least some of the money inevitably gets cycled back into the prison economy.

Don’t Miss: Andre Coe’s PRISON ECONOMICS 101 

Not everyone in prison is a major player in the game, but most prisoners do something for some form of side-hustle. You can do haircuts, assist others with legal work, sell your prescribed medications [see #7], leverage some positive influence you might have with a staff-member to get a cell-change, arrange to have one of your people help someone else’s loved one visit, wash or iron clothes/shoes, brew some prison wine, or, if you can get away with it, occasionally steal from others. Individually, none of these hustles make up a significant part of the underground economy, but the money earned from them does contribute to the overall flow.

How much of this flow you control gets you power in prison. How big of a chunk can you manage? This is where the gangs ply their trade and what sparks most fights and stabbings, but also where prisoners temporarily “escape” from the harshest aspects of the environment…where life doesn’t suck quite so bad.

Like any economy, a constant flow is the key. The drug smugglers don’t just want to use their own drugs… they want to be able to buy some better food. The extortionists don’t make enough money to rely solely on abusing others… they need to run a store to maintain their lifestyle. A gambling-kingpin lifer might want a trans-girlfriend and needs money to take care of them. A master photo-realistic painter might want to spend as much of his prison-bit as high as possible. The dealer might want to pay someone to help him legally get out of prison. The card-shark might want someone to help his aging mother for a day. The pimp might want his clothes hand-washed and ironed. The store-man might want a good haircut. The card-maker might want an onion, or a Playboy. Anyone might want an occasional drink of hooch.

You just have to know who to talk to in prison and have what that person needs. You can’t get EVERYTHING you want in prison. But, for a price, you can get at least a taste of nearly anything.

As Guns ‘n Roses famously said, “Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got whatever you may need… if you’ve got the money, honey, we’ve got your disease.”

[1] Suboxone is a drug similar to methadone, but which recently was redeveloped by the pharmaceutical company Invidior to come in Listerine “mouthwash strip” style gel strips. Prescribed commonly to those in rehab or in recovery, one strip can sell in prison for $90, and is as thin as paper and can be melted into a sheet of actual paper. Paper-weed, or K-2, is a synthetic cannabinoid (vaguely related to THC in marijuana) that can be bought as a liquid and sprayed onto paper, drying clearly and unnoticeably.

[2] tattoo and/or greeting cards

[3] Prisoners will buy anything from aspirin to psychopharmaceuticals to Ditropan, a bladder-control medication that will supposedly make you hallucinate.

Chris Dankovich is serving 25-37 years in Michigan for murdering his mother when he was 15 years old.

Chris Dankovich #595904

Thumb Corr Facility

3225 John Conley Dr

Lapeer, MI 48446