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Incarcerated artist Arnoldo Juarez organizes his shop of sports logo trinkets
Incarcerated artist Arnoldo Juarez organizes his shop of sports logo trinkets on the yard (Photo courtesy of Arnoldo Juarez)

Where can you find some of the most creative professionals in California? They’re inside the state’s prisons.

We have taught ourselves to be savvy traders, fine artists, stenographers and even fiber recyclers.

We’ve had no choice.

While the economy outside reeled from COVID-19 and then inflation, the effect was magnified in the nation’s prisons, where workers have almost no options in the formal economy and wages are stagnant at abysmally low levels.

Take California, where I’m incarcerated. A worker’s wage can be as low as 8 cents an hour, and maxes out at $1 an hour for jobs in state-owned correctional industries. That’s hardly enough to afford food and other basic items that help people behind bars live a slightly more dignified life. So we have to create our own jobs, and we’ve made a flourishing economy out of our ingenuity. 

COVID-19 put thousands of incarcerated Californians out of work for up to two years.  That loss of pay was offset by stimulus checks, but only to a degree — most incarcerated people forfeited a majority of those checks toward victim restitution payments. 

On the outside, both jobs and wages have rebounded — in California, employment is back to pre-pandemic levels and wages are on the rise. But Californians’ purchasing power is still down due to multiple years of higher-than-usual inflation. Food and beverage costs are 24% higher than they were before the pandemic, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The same pressures affect life inside, but they are even more intense — the incarcerated can’t shop around or hunt for bargains. 

In over 30 years of incarceration, I have watched my cellmates, coworkers and friends spend nearly all their prison wages and family deposits at the prison canteen — prison’s version of a pricey “company store” — on a limited selection of substandard products. Many commodities are near or beyond the printed shelf life.

In 2022, I obtained a Mule Creek State Prison canteen price list from 2002 and compared the prices of 21 common items found on the shelves of all California prison commissaries. The result was an average item increase of 79% over the two decades.

In that time, wages have not budged. In fact, my research showed no increases since at least 1982. Nationally, a Prison Policy Initiative review of prison wages in 2017 found the average prison minimum wage had dropped, to 86 cents a day from 93 cents in 2001. 

The creative prison economy

The incarcerated can’t make up for wage loss with overtime work, so we have to get creative. Innovative prisoners find ways to earn by bartering, offering specialty services, upcycling and even creating in-cell convenience stores.

Talented artists abound in prisons. Some skilled illustrators render beautiful portraits in colored pencil from family or individual photos. Creating depictions of sports team logos — either etched, drawn, painted or intricately done in beadwork — is another favorite side hustle. A commission can be bartered for a jar or two of instant coffee, canned meats, or some stamps. Sometimes the buyer might shop and pay for the artist’s grocery list on their next shopping day at the canteen.

A rare but lucrative specialty trade is dissecting the elastic waistbands of old boxer shorts to create twine for everyday use. A guy in my pod has turned this into his side hustle. A pair of old boxer shorts contains over 40 yards of thin, durable fiber reinforcing the elastic waistband. A single strand makes good sewing thread. Two strands braided together can repair shoes or vinyl mattress covers. A triple strand turns into a clothesline strong enough to hold a soggy blanket. The process takes about two hours and earns the laborer $3 to $5. The guy in my pod also makes heavy-duty homemade needles that can fit the twine. Fashioned from pounded paper clips and staples, the larger needles are used for sneaker and mattress repair. These go for $3 to $5 each.

Of course, all prison yards are meccas for gambling, from dominoes and card games to dayroom sports betting pools. Organizers profit, there are always winners — and the losers are motivated to learn other sellable skills, like drawing or dissecting boxer shorts.

There are no computers in California prison yards, but four times a year we have an option to buy a typewriter from an outside vendor. I would guess there are around 10 typewriters for every 200 people in prison. Those who own them can either rent out the machines or type up documents for others. Legal work, writs or business letters can generate 50 cents to $1.50 per typewritten page. The antiquated technology requires expensive ribbons and printing wheels (ranging from $7 for ribbons and $30 for printing wheels). To save on costs, the ribbons are dissected, reversed, rewound and reused.

The enterprising among us capitalize on the frequent canteen inventory fluctuations by creating mini convenience stores in their cells. People who can afford it will stock up on prized commodities like instant coffee, snack chips, pastries and candy. If someone is jonesing for coffee or something sweet when the commissary is out of stock, they will pay usury-level rates. They readily pay back two items for the one they “purchased” once the supply has recovered. These in-house 7-Elevens do brisk business. And why shouldn’t they? Exxon and BP set prices similarly. This is simple supply and demand.

Prison yard laundry and clothing services can be undependable and frustrating. Clothing inventory shortages, disappearing laundry, and infrequent tailoring are common issues. Although weekly laundering services are provided by the prison, we don’t always get back what we put in. So paying an industrious neighbor $2 to $3 to wash a week's worth of laundry is a sound investment. Talented tailors also alter and repair state-issued and personal clothing for pay. Hemming blue jean cuffs runs $2; creating an extra pocket costs $4.

Without these kinds of side gigs, we simply wouldn’t be able to afford the things we need to make life a bit more bearable, especially if wages remain so low.

Will raises ever come?

In a December 2022 meeting with leaders of the incarcerated community, Chief Deputy Warden Bryan Holmes confirmed rumors that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was conducting research for a proposal to raise inmate pay scales. This would potentially raise minimum wages from 8 cents per hour to 80 cents per hour for all jobs. A request to the chief deputy warden's office for further comment received no reply. 

But even if the wage hike goes into effect, it won’t be enough to bridge the huge gap with inflationary prices.

A more significant change could come if an amendment to the California Constitution makes it on voters’ ballots. Legislation for this finally gained traction in September. The proposed amendment was stuck on whether incarcerated workers would qualify for the state minimum wage of $15 an hour (detractors argued the expense would be too large). 

The amendment would ban involuntary servitude — the currently lawful practice that allows the government to force people to work as punishment for a crime. Involuntary servitude is allowed in the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of most states. If the proposed amendment passes the California Senate next year, it would be on ballots in November 2024.

In the meantime, the creative prisoner economy will continue to flourish.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John L. Orr is a writer incarcerated in California.