Federal prisons are like cities unto themselves. Like traditional cities, they also have their own underground economies.

The Black Market in Federal Prison

Federal prisons are like cities unto themselves. Like traditional cities, they also have their own underground economies. The difference is that in normal cities residents can shop at a local grocery store to buy items to eat, whereas in prison, you cannot buy things such as onions. Thus comes the prison black market, where onions and more nefarious items can be purchased.

Much like the farmer in early American society would trade his products for what he needed, so too does the American prisoner. For example, say one federal prisoner works in Laundry Services, while another works in Food Service. The one from laundry trades new socks stolen from his workplace for an onion stolen from Food Service. Sometimes the black market isn’t just a trade of goods, but an exchange of “prison currency,” or services such as typing or tattooing.

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Money is prohibited in federal prison. Common prison currency is either postage stamps or foil packs of mackerel, which can be purchased for $1 from the commissary. While the packs of mackerel are straightforward (each pack equates to $1 of currency), stamps are a different story.

Traditionally, stamps were divided into two categories: compound stamps and mailing stamps. Compound stamps were very worn stamps which couldn’t be used for mailing purposes. They equated to $0.25 each. But, in recent years, most prison compounds have switched to mailing stamp only economies. These are first-class stamps which can be used for mailing purposes. While a single forever stamp costs 49 cents, each is generally worth 25 cents, and three equal $1.00. Regular dollar stamps, or global stamps (which are currently worth $1.15) are worth $1. Compound stamps are purchased from a store man (a prisoner who operates a black market commissary from their locker or cell), and mailing stamps are purchased from the institutional commissary.

Prisoners can purchase both heroin and onions on the black market. They just have to know where to look. But the guiding principle of all transactions should be good, honest business. Regardless of whether a prisoner is looking to make dinner or get high, honest transactions are essential for avoiding problems and keeping the wheels of commerce moving with as little strife as possible.

Some information about the black market:

  • Engaging in business is against Federal Bureau of Prisons’ rules, which prohibit the giving or receiving of anything of value (Code 328) and conducting a business (Code 334). Being charged with either of these violations, however unlikely, could result in the loss of a privilege for, on average, 30 to 90 days.
  • Virtually all prisoners utilize the black market to some degree. This is a simple matter of needing items that they don’t have and are willing either to pay or trade for. For example, let’s say that you don’t want to pay $2.45 for a jar of peanut butter from the commissary since you don’t have much money in your trust fund account. Instead you could pay $1 for 10 packs of peanut butter, each enough for a sandwich. So, in this equation you could buy 25 packs of peanut butter, a much more frugal choice, for the same price as a jar of peanut butter from commissary.
  • The black market isn’t always used for nefarious transactions such as drugs. Is bartering or trading against prison rules? Yes. But it is a common economic activity in prison. It’s kind of like outside of prison when people don’t always abide by the speeding limit or use their blinker when turning. Prisoners buy food made with ingredients stolen from the kitchen or utilize a store man in their housing units.
  • You can find a number of items on the black market. Staples are fried burritos (called “fried wraps”), onions, tomatoes, sodas, and other food items. Radios are also popular. And you can also find alcohol and hard drugs. Prescription medications, which are cheeked and sold to others, are also a staple of the prison drug trade.
  • Guards turn a blind eye to the sale of food items, along with the commonplace use of store men, but they do very much care about alcohol and drugs. Guards regularly see prisoners engaging in commerce, but if it involved the trade of intoxicants or weapons, they will most certainly act. This can easily result in a 100 series incident report and a direct trip to the hole.
  • The safest way to engage in black market activity is to only do business with people with good reputations for doing good business. Outside of this, always pay your debts on time and rarely give credit to anyone. Pay what you owe and no more. And always pay in commissary products or stamps. Doing a “send in” — which consists of having a family member or friend deposit money in someone else’s trust fund account — is usually a bad idea. It’s against regulations and leaves a trail for prison investigators to follow. Be smart, use the simplest and easiest path to fulfilling your needs, and always abide by the agreements that you make.

Contact us for more information on the prison black market or other areas of prison life.

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