A Geek in Prison — Part 8 — InterPrison Exchange & Keyboard Training

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 a joint post of my Geek in Prison and Socioeconomic Observation Series. I think you will enjoy this one as I find it intriguing.

Every prison has a commissary as we discussed in previous posts. Depending on your prison’s level of security, it could be better or worse. As far as federal institutions go, the highest security is a Supermax like ADX Florence, CO. The next level down is a maximum penitentiary, a medium, a low, and a camp. After a camp, you can be designated to community release, which allows you to live on home confinement, but you are still an inmate. You are only eligible for this once you’ve completed 90 percent of your sentence.

In Lewisburg, we had a pretty decent commissary. Across all prisons, the price of Mackerel never deviated much away from the $1.25 range, which is another reason it was used as a currency. If you transferred prisons, they let you take your property with you including your Mackerel. The Mackerel maintained its value throughout all prisons.

This is a really important factor when it comes to maintaining value. If a currency isn’t fungible and without bias, it will fail.

Many inmates love Sriracha Hot Sauce, but my prison did not sell Sriracha, and other prisons did. The same thing goes for larger bowls, robes, and other items that were in high demand.

The IntraPrison Exchange where you can buy something from another inmate is pretty well known. You can use various prison currencies such as the Mackerel, or even be “on the books” where an inmate-run store can issue you credit for a fee. You can use that credit around the compound, and as long as you settle up with your credit issuer, you are fine. It’s the prison credit card.

The InterPrison Exchange or IPX as it’s known gives prisoners the ability to purchase something from another prison. How this works depends on your institution and can vary.

Many inmates have hustles, things they do for money. This can be personal training, cleaning your cube, ironing, cooking, drawing, and even hat and scarf sewing.

Personally I did not have a hustle although I would help people do things for free like typing for them. Use of the email system costs $0.05 a minute. Being a fast typer myself, writing a few dozens emails a day would only cost me roughly $1-$2 a day maximum. However many inmates were either older, from lower income backgrounds or just never spent too much time around a computer. I was surprised at the amount of people who were spending 30 minutes writing one email! Thats roughly $1.50 per email, and it adds up quickly.

Of course, if there is demand, there will be supply and that includes typists. Typists would charge and type up emails for you. However, I liked teaching an inmate how to type himself. I figured that in any job they might get in the future, being a fast typist would be important.

I would train people a few different ways. The easiest and cheapest way was to draw out a keyboard, and sit with the inmate while he practices. It seems trivial, but it helped and saved inmates hundreds of dollars. I would have them write out an email they wanted to send by hand, practice on the keyboard, and then head to the computer. Their fingers were now trained.

Some inmates wrote very personal emails to their loved ones, and I was touched and humbled that they trusted me with these. I personally wish that typing classes could be officially given in prisons because this is an easy to learn and useful skill and can help raise inmates’ confidence to reach for higher goals.

I met and befriended dozens of extremely smart people on prison who simply never had the educational experience to pursue something other than selling drugs. I met a marijuana farmer who could run numbers better than math PhDs because it was what he did all day. When I asked him why he didn’t go to college, he said he never needed to.

In the next post, I will talk about some classes that were given and the type of educational and vocational activities were offered in my prison. Thankfully, my prison had what I thought was a good educational department.

What types of classes would you like to see being taught in prison?

All names have been changed to protect inmates’ privacy. Everything I write is hypothetical and for educational purposes only.

-Charlie

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