Seeing a guy getting a haircut using a razor blade and a comb in the county jail was my introduction to the ingenuity that exists behind bars.
Recently I watched a guy create a cooler out of the styrofoam trays we’ve been receiving at every meal during the COVID-19 lockdown — a bit of cutting, some string, add ice and voilà a cooler for milk.
To my right, hanging off my bunkie’s bed is a re-used Fruit of the Loom waistband with a piece of sweatshirt to create an eye cover for sleeping. On the other side of the bunk is a shoestring with an old pencil attached to it, so it functions like a toilet paper holder.
In here, we can purchase locker organizers for $11.45 or shower bags for $5.50, but when one makes 12 cents an hour, one comes up with a homemade version made of old laundry bags.
A new radio costs $37.45 and an MP3 player $88.40. Both are astronomical prices by prison standards — the equivalent of three to five months of pay — and yet there are no protective cases available to be purchased. That’s why people make cases made from old clothing, elastic waist bands, and even crocheted holders.
No string for shoe laces? Twist some garbage bags. Need a hanger to hang up your old clothes? Use old newspapers rolled up into a tight tube, and run a string through it. Need a coffee cup? Do you have a peanut butter jar?
A folded and braided empty bag of potato chips can be turned into countless items from purses to picture frames. Pill bottles turn into storage containers. Empty bags of snacks can also be used to hold hot water or as a mixing container for food.
A sewing kit is probably one of the best items an inmate can purchase. I’ve seen clothes patched so many times, it’s hard to tell what’s original.
When you first enter a federal prison whether you’re new or transferring from another facility, you may have no property or you might be waiting for months for your property to follow you. The government issues you pants, shirts, boxers, socks and boots, but no recreation shoes or clothes. Guys will typically give you hand-me-downs, which might be a 10-year old sweatshirt that has been passed around. But a new sweatshirt costs $17.55, which is the equivalent of 146 hours of work at 12 cents an hour. For people outside working $15 an hour, it’s like paying $2,190 for a sweatshirt.
Recycle, repurpose, patch, fix and reuse. Those are cool terms that seem to be all the rage in the free world. In prison, it’s simply what we do.
I invest in new running shoes for $60 to $70, but I put over 2,000 miles on them before I turn them into my workout shoes. After that, they become walk-around shoes. Then I give them to a new guy in need. Try that, America!
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.