USA: how the prison economy works

When Wilbert Rideau was 19, in 1961, he killed a man in a bungled bank robbery. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he was sent to Louisiana State Penitentiary, known by prisoners, guards and locals as Angola after a slave plantation that previously existed on the site. Rideau was given the label C-18. The C stood for “condemned”, and the number denoted his place on the death-row list. His fate was to be the electric chair.

Rideau lived in isolation on death row for more than a decade, and read voraciously. He became interested in journalism and started to write. By the mid-1970s he was living in the main prison and editing the penitentiary’s in-house monthly magazine, the Angolite. In the end Rideau avoided execution, and today he is undoubtedly Angola’s most famous former prisoner. Under Rideau’s 20-year editorship, the magazine won many national awards, but he first made his name as a prison reporter with a column he called The Jungle. The very first topic he chose was the working of the prison economy.

Today there are almost 2.3 million prisoners in the US – by far the highest number of any country in the world. Louisiana today has the second-highest incarceration rate in the US (after Oklahoma overtook it in 2018), with a male incarceration rate that far exceeds the national average, and Angola is the state’s only maximum-security jail.

It is also the country’s largest, covering an 18,000-acre site that is larger than Manhattan. On a mission to investigate the world’s most extreme economies, I set out for Angola. My hunch was that I would find examples of simplistic barter; what I discovered was an innovative, complex and modern system of hidden trade that offers an important lesson about the way economies work.

Serving prisoners and ex-convicts say the first law of prison economics is unsatisfied demand and the innovation that it stimulates. Cut off from the outside, prisoners find themselves lacking staples and unable to make choices that they had previously taken for granted. The urge to get hold of simple material goods is strong, and prisoners I met described the first few weeks inside as a shock during which time they learn the rules of their new world and adapt to the reality that they have lost not only their freedom but also their possessions.

Today in Louisiana new inmates receive basic supplies: standard-issue clothing, a bar of soap and some lotion. But there are lots of day-to-day items they lack and want: deodorant, decent jeans, better sneakers.

It was the same in the 1960s, Rideau told me when we met in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital: while you got simple provisions, a lot of effort went into getting hold of extra comforts.

Some goods are available via official channels, but getting hold of them takes a long time. When a prisoner in Angola orders a book or is sent one, it can take six months, or longer, to reach them, since censors need to check the content. The delay is an example of a general theme in the Louisiana prison economy: it operates in a time warp.

Time works differently in Louisiana prisons in part because the state’s sentences have, historically, been so long. Reforms since 2017 have begun to make some sentencing guidelines more lenient, but for decades everyone convicted of murder in the state got a mandatory life sentence, as did any accomplices or friends who were at the scene. Even nonviolent crimes have often led to huge sentences in Louisiana. Mandatory sentences for repeat offenders often doubled with each conviction. There was also, until recently, another rule that meant a fourth offence could have a mandatory minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in jail. I met one ex-Angola resident, Louis, who spent 20 years in Angola on a drug charge. He explained his case isn’t the worst: Timothy Jackson, a man caught stealing a jacket from a shop more than 20 years ago, is set to spend the rest of his life in Angola. The average sentence in Angola is almost 90 years.

In many prisons, simple goods that are cheap and insignificant on the outside can have huge value inside; in facilities like Angola, the ultra-long sentences take this to another level. In his memoir, In the Place of Justice, Rideau explains how tiny improvements can transform a prisoner’s life. Like the other men on death row, he was confined to a small cell. Three of the walls – the back and two sides – were brick. The front wall was a grid of bars, offering no privacy as guards and other prisoners walked past, and letting in a cold draught during winter. Getting hold of a blanket or a curtain to hang over the bars could have a transformative effect on an inmate’s life. When your world shrinks to a three-sided box, a piece of cloth that will grant you privacy and warmth becomes a fundamental need you will work hard to satisfy.

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