A Geek in Prison — Part 11 — Making Friends

A Geek in Prison is Bitcoin Pioneer Charlie Shrem’s account of his experience going from being a force for increasing adoption of Bitcoin before the world had heard of cryptocurrency to a 15-month stint in federal prison for selling it to the wrong people. In his excitement to spread the word about Bitcoin, Charlie fell afoul of the law and acknowledges that he committed the crime. He has since gone on to found Crypto.IQ, an educational and investment firm.

This is Part 11 in a series about my life as a Geek in Prison. Click my name to follow me and check out my blog for the Preamble and Parts 1–10. All names have been changed to protect inmates’ privacy. Everything I write is hypothetical and for educational purposes only.

One of the first things I was told in prison came from someone who claimed to be my friend was that, “No one in prison is your friend.” Interestingly enough, we were friends early on. If you read Part 1, I mentioned Belkin who spoke to me on the bench. Later on, I found out he was spreading rumors about me. Once a rumor is spread in prison, if you try to defend yourself, you are giving justice to the rumor, and people think there is some truth to it. The best thing you can do is ignore them completely.

Over time though, I realized that “friends” are really other inmates whose agenda it is to be aligned with you, or you with them. There are other inmates that I was true friends with, but these were usually people who had similar backgrounds, traits, or relationships as I.

Inmates tends to hang out with other inmates who are the most similar to them. In higher institutions, it’s race, but where I was, it was religion, the type of crime you committed, or just people who liked the same things. I’m happy to say that race wasn’t a huge factor in my institution, and, even despite being from different religions, most people got along. Usually, when there were falling outs or issues, it was internal to a particular group. For some reason, I noticed the Dominican and Puerto Rican communities didn’t like each other, just an observation. I’m not sure why.

I was in prison for a white collar crime as they call it; however, I want to make a distinction. “White Collar” tends to mean crimes of a financial nature and usually not involving drugs or violence. Many people think I went to a “White Collar” prison. This is not the case as only 1 in 10 inmates had committed white collar crimes. Contrary to what you might think, “White Collar” does not mean race either. There were plenty white drug dealers and plenty of black white collar criminals.

It doesn’t matter who you were outside of prison. You can be a billionaire and cleaning toilets, or not have two pennies and run the show. It matters who you are on the inside. Are you someone who does your time or make your time to do? Are you becoming a better person or acting like you did before?

Early on in my stay, it was hard to make friends. I had a few friends from the Jewish community, but I wanted to branch out. I didn’t want to live in my shell. However, there was a certain aura about me that I couldn’t shake. Inmates said I acted super confident all the time, like my “shit don’t stink.” The problem was, I didn’t feel that way, and I wasn’t sure how I was acting that way. What was I doing?

I noticed that I had to do the following:

• Stop talking about my life outside prison. People don’t want to hear war stories or parties.

• Offer to help people. People liked when you helped them, whether it’s explaining a complicated TV show or cooking something.

• Open the door, say good morning, and try and act humble. I didn’t need to be always the first at everything.

•I needed to stop thinking that the world revolved around me.

• Hang out with other people, not just your friends.

Once I started following these rules my world changed dramatically. Other inmates became friendlier. When the inmate in the cell next to me, Juan, would cook rice and chicken for everyone he would include me, and I would eat with them.

Every day, when I came back from work at 3 p.m., I would make some coffee for Juan, and myself, and we would play cards for 2 hours and discuss our day. At 5 p.m., we would go to dinner. Small routines like that people noticed. They saw Juan and I were becoming friends, and they realized that I was open minded and could be friends with anyone. It really made a huge difference.

Over time, I joined sports leagues, and that forced friendships as well. I was on the football team, and I would eat and hang out with my teammates. There was a bocce tournament every weekend, and my partner and I almost won a few times.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who are not like you. That was one of the most valuable things I learned in prison!

Do you think you’d be able to make friends easily ?

— Charlie

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