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Stealing Cake

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

One of America’s most dominant values is work ethic. It is taught in classrooms and in organized sports. It is expected on jobsites and in business. Those who do not work can be viewed as lazy or even immoral. In our culture different professions or jobs carry different levels of value. Most Americans have internalized the norms of work. It is known that a day’s work is generally rewarded by a day’s pay. “Another day, another dollar” is a common cliché in the workplace. There are exceptions to this rule, such as, volunteer work, salaries, or contracts.

              In South Carolina prisons (and for the purpose of this paper, specifically Level 3 prisons), work is essential to the day to day operations of the institution. However, this work is not rewarded by monetary value, as it would be in American society. One could argue, a prisoner’s basic needs (food, shelter, hygiene, etc.) are provided for and thus, they should have to work. Anyone who has lived over a week in prison would tell you that many needs are left for them to find ways to compensate for. Many jobs in prison have access to resources or positions that allow prisoners to, “make a hustle” or provide things for themselves. In this essay we will examine a few of the jobs that put inmates in position to earn something other than what the system has set aside for their “basic needs.”

              To better understand this we need to briefly explain the ways in which prisoners buy and sell things amongst themselves. Generally, paper money and any form of currency (credit cards, money orders, checks, etc.) are banned by prison policy. Possession of these things can actually earn prisoners a charge (an incident report written up with possible disciplinary action). So prisoners operate on a bartering system in which trades are made. Many items can be used as currency: food, office supplies, clothing, hygiene items, etc. Services can also be offered as currency: cell cleaning, sewing, washing clothes, law work, etc. An example of a deal made with a jailhouse lawyer(a prisoner familiar with law that fills out paper work for others); I will do your PCR paperwork for 100 dollars worth of canteen. The next “store day” the client would order 100 dollars worth of food items and give them to the “lawyer.” He would, in turn, provide the legal documentation filled out and ready to send off. By policy, this is a violation of the rules and inmates can be charged for “trafficking and trading.” This rule is rarely enforced.

              Next, one must consider the definition and connotations that the word “stealing” carries in society and how that may differ in the prison setting. Stealing is defined as (1)To take (the property of another) without right or permission. (2) To get or effect secretly or artfully. (3) To move, carry, or place surreptitiously. In prison, stealing may be defined much different. To help the reader understand, the following illustrations may help.

Example 1:

John goes to the kitchen to get his dinner tray. It is 3 pm on a Friday afternoon and this is the last provided meal until “brunch” Saturday morning which usually comes between 10-11 am. He brought Saran Wrap to wrap his cake up and bring back to the dorm. This would give him a small snack before going to bed or when he woke up. John does not get money from home so he has to be crafty to keep from feeling hungry.

              This act is actually considered stealing. If an officer really wanted to be petty (which is a possibility in certain prisons), they could charge John for “stealing” a cake that was given to him. This rarely happens but the fact remains that John believes he stole his cake.

Example 2:

John is told that the cafeteria needs help. He has some experience working in restaurants, and gets hired as a cook. He is a hard worker who shows leadership skills and the kitchen runs smooth because of his work ethic. The kitchen supervisor (prison staff) takes notice of his hard work. There is no way for the supervisor to legally pay him, but he allows John to make some special plates he can take back to the dorm to trade. A few weeks later the supervisor is on vacation and someone is taking his place. He sees John as arrogant and bossy and wants to put him in his place. One day the new supervisor sees John leaving the kitchen with two styrofoam trays. He rushes out to the door and takes the trays from John and asks security to escort John back to the dorm to be deadlocked in his cell. The supervisor writes him up for “stealing.”

This act is simply a way of John providing something extra for himself that was understood by one supervisor, but the other saw a way to get back at John for doing what he had been rewarded for. The fact remains that if it is allowed or not, it is considered stealing.

Example 3:

              John starts going to the chapel every week for church services. He enjoys service and makes friends with a prisoner, who is a chapel clerk. The clerk tells him there is a librarian job available in the chapel and John speaks to the chaplain  and gets hired. John uses his down time in the chapel to draw greeting cards and the chaplain gives John supplies like paper, pencils, and pens. John trades his cards in the dorm for food and hygiene items.

              Once again, this is a way for John to earn some extra items for himself. This way is not viewed as negative, but if looked at through the light of policy it can be considered “stealing” and “trafficking and trading.”

Conclusions:

              These examples are only a few of the many illustrations, that could be given, of ways men in prison earn their keep. What is it that the prisoner gleans from this? He has to steal to support himself; Things that are given to him need to be hidden if he wants to keep them; That the chaplain assisted him in stealing from the agency. These things may seem trivial to an outsider, but when men live this way for years, it becomes internalized. However subtle these ways that prisoners “steal”, they are tricked into thinking that things that they worked for, things that they were given, are actually things they stole.

              By no means am I suggesting that inmates do not steal to trade for contraband. The point I wish to illustrate is the value of work ethic. Prisoners that exhibit these values should be compensated in some way that fits into the narrative of corrections and rehabilitation. This would give incentives to men without work ethic to strive towards.

Solutions:

              Prisoners need incentives or positive sanctions for the work that they do. Working all day without pay or rewards and being told you are stealing the fruit of your labor is damaging, not only to the individual, but also, to society. We are essentially training men to steal and allowing them to believe that stolen goods are the reward for their work. There should be policies in place that make allowances for prisoners who work hard to help the prison run effectively and efficiently.

Last Illustration:

              John is back at home. He has a beautiful wife and two children. He finds a job working in a restaurant a few miles from home. The restaurant owner likes John and appreciates his expertise and work ethic. The owner knows John just got out and needs some extras from time to time. He tells John to make something extra for his family at the end of his shift each day.

              John sets the table with a meal fit for a king in his small apartment. When his children come to sit at the table John says, “Daddy stole a good meal from work for y’all. Enjoy kids."

             

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There's nothing that can be added to make this glaring problem any clearer. The elimination of inmate pay has created a black market system that undermines all of the "corrections" systems stated objectives. If you don't give a prisoner a way to provide meaningful ways to provide the essentials that are not provided ie. uality hygeine, rec. shoes, sunscreen, etc. they are forced to get it on their own. This only reinforces a criminal mentality, the exact thing that is supposed to be corrected.

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