A Geek in Prison — Part 7 — I’m a Working Boy Now

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.

When you first get to prison, the advice people give you is, “Create a routine, become busy, and find things to do.” During my first few weeks there, I thought everyone was nuts. How the hell would I stay busy? I was waking up in the morning, and the only thing I had planned was meals in the chow hall. The days went on for years, and I would lay in bed and read half the day. I was extremely unproductive.

I wanted to get to work as soon as possible. There are a dozens of different prison jobs you can apply for, but you can’t start working until you go through prison “A&O.” A&O is orientation and held once a month, so if you land yourself in Lewisburg right after A&O, you could be waiting 3 to 4 weeks without a job. Luckily, I only had to wait a week. The next day, my job was posted on the Call Out sheet.

Every day they administration published a “Call Out Sheet” in various locations through the building.

The Call Out Sheet is the word of God.

A call out is a formal notification for you to report to a certain place at a certain time. They are published daily and should be treated as if written in stone. Harsh penalties can come from not being at an appointed place and time as posted on the call-out. Never make a C.O. come looking for you if you are on the call-out.

If you are not a mechanic, electrician, barber, or anything with a special skill, you will be assigned to UNICOR or the Kitchen. Those are two of the highest paying jobs with the best benefits; however, you have to work the hardest. Working in the kitchen, you start off wiping tables and cleaning the room, but you can eat all you want, and many kitchen workers were part of the “Kitchen Cabal,” which handled the black market buying and selling of food.

UNICOR is a United States government corporation that acts as correctional work program for inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. UNICOR produces more than 100 products and services for sale primarily to the Federal Government. Most federal prisons have a UNICOR factory for everything from making furniture to breaking down electronics. The pay is awesome by prison standards, about $80 a month base pay to start with a raise every month. The good part is usually you take a bus or walk to another part of the compound, so it feels like you’re leaving for work.

Halfway through my prison stay, I was hired by another prison to work in the landscaping department, but in the meantime, I got a job in the education department.

I had applied directly to the head of the education department that I wanted to work as a GED tutor. He agreed and gave me my first student after A&O.

Being a GED tutor was difficult at first, especially building a rapport with your student. I was a 26-year-old kid, trying to build a teacher-student relationship with my first student whose nickname was “Knife.” I was never allowed to call him by his real name, and you can imagine why. He happened to be a very nice guy, once you got to know him. His strengths were science and social studies because reading and answering questions was easy for him. His weakness was math, which happened to be my speciality. I gave him homework, and we met every day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eventually, he got his high school equivalency.

I liked working in the education department because it was quiet, and I had plenty of time to read books, newspapers, and have good discussions with other guys in the department.

My other student was a 60-year-old man, who never finished the 5th grade. He hustled all his life and had no need for school. He told me that, when he got out, he would be too old to hustle anymore or do anything else, so he had to find a real job. I explained to him that, with his high school equivalency diploma, the opportunities were a lot better for him. The diploma could mean the difference between being a shop clerk or a manager.

He took me seriously but got burnt out after 30 minutes, so it was difficult. He would walk in some days and say he didn’t want to work, so what was I supposed to do? I worked around his schedule, and we often took breaks. It took 6 months, but he finally got his GED.

Halfway through my stay, I felt I wanted to move on from the education department. It was getting kind of boring, and since the weather was getting nicer, I thought working outdoors could be fun.

I went from being a city boy to chopping down trees.

— Charlie

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