It’s A Business: The Secret Side Of Prison Life


Once the key is turned and bars separate the man from the rest of the world, life changes. Prisoners are told when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when to go to work, when to eat, when to study, when to relax, and when they can go home, if ever.

Prisoners have many debts to pay. The first is to the court. Then comes their debt to society. Next is to their fellow inmates.

Living in prison is like living in a civilization straight from the Mad Max world. It’s a world that’s not seen by those on the outside.

Prison inmates earn pennies per hour for the work they perform during their periods of incarceration. For most of these prisoners existing on ninety-cents a day just doesn’t cut it. After all, a  package of tuna in the commissary costs more than an entire day’s wages. How do these guys supplement their salaries to offset the high costs of living well in prison?

To understand the prison economy you must first know that inmates have devised their own currency. In the past, cigarettes were used as money (one cigarette equaled $.25). Now, since most prisons and jails have banned the use of all tobacco products, inmates filled the void in their economy by using postage stamps as money (A book of stamps equals $10.00).

To earn extra “money” some prisoners perform services in exchange for pay. For example, some inmates cut hair. Some run stores by purchasing items from the commissary and reselling to inmates who do not have the necessary funds to shop legitimately.


A simple cut may go for four stamps ($2.00)

A box of snack cakes – 1/2 book


Tattooing – 2 books for a small tattoo


Show shine – 2 stamps


Cell cleaning – 1 book per week

Stolen desserts from prison kitchen – 2 stamps

Typing – 10 pages for 2 stamps

Tennis balls or other sporting equipment and clothing – Two stamps and up


Homework and other assignments – Two stamps and up

Vegetables stolen from the prison kitchen – Two stamps each

Piece of chicken stolen from kitchen – two stamps