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This week’s question is how much do every day items cost in prison?
In British prisons, money and the loaning or borrowing of personal items is strictly forbidden, this is to limit the number of disputes over debts, and although some basic essentials are paid for by the state (clothing, food, bedding and some toiletries), prisoners do have a mandatory cell wage of £5 per week, plus an allowance of between £4 and £25 per week, depending on their category, behaviour, duties and how hard they work.
Inside most prisons there is a canteen and a shop, where prisoners can buy additional legitimate items using their weekly allowance, and (in Scotland at least) they’re surprisingly cheap, which has caused a bit of a rumpus up north (“we’re allll doomed!”). For example; a can of Pringles is 50p cheaper, HobNob biscuits 40p cheaper, Pot Noodle 25p cheaper, a pack of 10 Lambert & Butler cigarettes 75p cheaper, oh yes all the essentials, and that staple of the Scottish diet (no not fruit – obviously, not Tennant’s Super Strength Lager on toast, not heroin-infused haggis or deep-fried whiskey-flavoured Klootie pudding – although that does sound smashing) no, it’s Scotland’s favourite breakfast, Scott’s Porage Oats which you can buy in the prison shop for 5p cheaper than in Tesco’s.
Okay, look, as I’m half Scottish, I’ll only apologise for half of that joke… although (hands-up) that accent was unforgivable.
So what about the things the shop can’t provide for a prisoner’s needs? What about contraband?
Cigarettes: Convicted prisoners are allowed to keep up to 62.5 grams of tobacco or 80 cigarettes, which seems fair enough, but as cigarettes are in high demand and can be easily traded for contraband items, this has created a black market where a single cigarette has been sold for £20 and a small pouch of tobacco for £200, especially since the 2007 Smoking Ban when some prisons went smoke-free. In the last few years, the prison system has spent £100,000 on vape kits to try to resolve this problem.
Mobile Phones: Illegal in prison, and yet, in 2017, over 15000 handsets and Sim cards were confiscated in UK prisons. Sim cards (the size of your fingernail and as thin as a credit card) can easily be smuggled in and with prisoners only allowed to make landline phone calls (all of which are screened), texts are forbidden and access to the internet is strictly limited, Sim cards which are cheap and even free on the outside, can be traded for £30, £50 and £100 inside. There are even tiny mobile phones, such as a the GTstar Mini BM50, which is entirely made from plastic so it’s not picked up by prison scanners, it’s as small as your finger (for obvious reasons - coughs), and on the outside they sell for £15, but inside, trade for between £200-300 a-piece, some phone up to £1000. The upside: you get to make unlimited calls, the downside is #1 if found your sentence can be increased, #2 you’re phone smells like another man’s ass, and #3, imagine the poor bloke who had to smuggle in the phone’s charger. Youch.
Drugs: The Prison Officers Association estimates the value of the drug market inside UK prisons at £100m a year with a whopping 189 kilos of drugs confiscated in UK prisons in 2017. So lucrative is the prison black market, with many drugs selling for ten times their street value inside, that ex-convicts actually get themselves re-arrested for minor offences, so they can be returned to prison, having first concealed contraband “about-their-person”, and by person, I mean up their bum-bum, foo-foo or down their foreskin. Eek. I guess that’s why some drugs are often referred to as “the good shit”.
These drugs include:
Spice: a synthetic psychoactive chemical cocktail which is dubbed the zombie drug because it turns the user temporarily into a motionless drooling zombie, which they take to help pass the time. It costs just £3 on the outside, but is sold at 33 times the price inside, almost £100, and as it’s highly addictive, ex-convicts (whose prison allowance can be as low as just £20 a month) can make £3000 in one day having smuggled just 28 ounces of Spice into the prison.
The same goes with other drugs.
Cocaine: depending on the quality, sells for £40 to £100 a gram on the outside, but £400 to £1000 inside. Heroin is roughly £100 a gram outside, but £1000 to £1500 on the inside, all of which are low-quality, having been cut and mix with baking powder, washing powder, shredded carpet and battery acid. Cannabis: On average it is £150 an ounce outside, but when broken down into separate baggies, an ounce brought inside for £800 can earn the prisoner £2800.
And failing that, there always alcohol or homemade hooch, an illegal drink which can be made from fruit and vegetable peel, sugar, syrup and crumbled bread (to act as the yeast); it’s pretty foul, it can be very pungent and as it needs a cool dark place to ferment, that is why it is often referred to as “toilet wine”. Ewww.
The rule of thumb inside prison seems to be, anything from the shop will be cheap but boring and anything that is contraband will stink like it’s been shoved up a man’s plop-pipe – which it has. So, when I’m next in prison, I think I’m smuggle in some hand sanitiser, some moist bottom wipes and a large can of air-freshener.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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