Good morning, my virtual cellie. Welcome back to my absolutely wonderful prison life (smile). It’s good to see you again, too. Well, don’t just stand in front of my cell door out on the run (tier), come inside, my curious civilian cellie, let’s talk while sharing a pack of chocolate chip cookies and cups of coffee.
Yep, you're right, this is the first time this year you’ve come into my cell and my fan is off, and yes, this is also the first time I’m wearing a t-shirt. Signs that the weather is changing with the increasingly cooler nights and mornings we are now having. I see you’re learning to be more observant. Okay, here’s your pretty …. enjoy. And a John Wayne for me. (Taking a seat next to you). Why am I up so damn early? Because life is short and eternity is long, so I’ll sleep when i die. Just joking. Seriously, sssssup (sipping on my coffee), I would be asleep too, if I wasn’t jarred awake by another one of my wild, crazy dreams about my black widow woman. It was more like a nightmare this time. She kept giving all of the ugly spiders second chances, but she kept betraying my trust and killing me over and over again. So, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t go back to sleep. Oh, you’re right, I almost forgot the cookies. Damn. I knew something was missing. Let me get them out of my locker.
Here we go (setting the pack of cookies between us and slicing it open with an open razor blade to eliminate the crinkly plastic noise), there, now we’re in business. Speaking of business, this coffee we’re sipping on and these chocolate chip cookies we’re munching on a little too fast (smile) are like edible gold and the Benjamin Franklin currency of the barter system prison economy. In prison, the medium of exchange are dollars in the form of commissary items that are devised into two categories: the “good” money and “bad” money, with cookies and coffee having the highest purchasing power of all the items. “Good” money in prison is anything that is edible, which means “bad” money - it’s all good to me (smile) - is anything that’s not edible. But to be more specific, good money would be like meat pouches (i.e., tuna, chili, chunky chicken, etc.), coffee, cookies, chips, and even powdered milk. “Bad” money is stamps, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and other hygiene items. When guys make gambling bets on sports games and different domino games, they prearranged terms of the bet they will discuss will be whether they will be paying with good money or bad money.
Stamps are the most plentiful and popular form of bad money. Since stamps are small, they can be passed (smuggled) in large quantities across the unit without being detected by the guards, and they are cheap. (They aren’t cheap out of the commissary, but stamps are cheap on the ‘streets’ of the black market prison economy), so stamps would be like the penny of our economy. The average inmate doesn't do an abundance of letter-writing and prefers “zoom-zooms and wham-whams,” (slang for goods and snacks) over stamps, so they trade most of their stamps they’ve gotten from other transactions at a much lower rate. When I took economics in college, I learned that money has two values: nominal value, and real value. The nominal value of a stamp is its face value: 49 cents, but on the “streets” in here, the real value (i.e., the purchasing power of a stamp) hovers between 30-35 cents.
For someone like me, who does a lot of writing, stamps are good money. So for example, the two mint sticks (20 cents total) I just crushed up to make your pretty, I can trade them for one stamp. And this pack of cookies ($1.05) we just devoured could get me four stamps (do the math).
Now that you understand some of the mechanics and nuances of our prison economy, let’s talk about cookies and coffee. First coffee.
Coffee is like the legal drug, or beer, of prison life. We even refer to coffee as ‘shots,’ instead of cups. A “shot” of instant coffee is a leveled tablespoon, and goes for a stamp, or one Ramen noodle soup. I am a proud coffee connoisseur, it’s my liquid motivation in a cup, and I drink 4-5 shots a day with zero guilt (smile). I always chase each shot with a cup of water, and I haven’t had any ill-effects in 21 years, so I’m going to keep a John Wayne in my hand. On every wing/line, there are always a few inmates who panhandle on the runs (tiers) with their empty cups, going cell to cell until they strike gold by getting a shot of coffee. I’m blessed, so I’m good for giving a shot to a man down on luck, but after that, he’s on his own and has to find a way to support his habit. The fact that drinking coffee is a strong, addictive habit in prison was demonstrated all too clearly while we were on lockdown recently. As guys began running out of coffee during the last few days of lockdown, they started bargaining with not one, but two Ramen soups, stamps, Penthouse letters books, jack shots (pictures of partially nude women), and some were even selling their Johnnie’s (remember him?) just to get a shot of coffee.
Here’s one thing to ponder when someone tries to come between a guy doing a life sentence and the cup of coffee that probably keeps him sane in this crazy prison world. many years ago, I witnessed a female guard pour out this guy’s coffee supply into the trash can because he was storing it in a secondary container (a peanut butter jar that he had cleaned and washed out). Well, after that day, I didn’t see either of them ever again. He “slept” her with one massive knock-out punch, Ray Rice style, and put her in the hospital, and he went to the hospital too, because he got the living shit beat out of him by countless maile guards. Just shows how much of a hot commodity coffee is in prison.
Cookies. Cookies to inmates are like what the buffalo were to the Native Americans, everything is used, and for multiple purposes. Let’s start with the now-empty plastic cookie tray sitting between us. In the free world, you wouldn’t think anything of this, you would just toss it in the trash. Well, in here, this is like a “baller,” big-money status symbol. Yep, a piece of trash, it’s crazy. After many of these guys eat their pack of cookies, they step to their cell door and hold this plastic tray in great anticipation as they call out one of their homeboy’s names.
“Hey, Mike?” (Silence.) “Mike?” (Louder). Then Mike answers.
“Yeah, what’s up?” this is when the other guy will twist and crinkle the plastic tray as loud as he can, which causes an instant ruckus of “oohs” and “ahhs” from other inmates, and there may be some clapping, too. Then someone will say, “hurt that boy,” and someone else might add, “get off him.” then Mike may respond with something like, “Bitch, you’ve been holding out on me, shoot me some cookies.”
Besides a showboating or “high-capping” mechanism, cookies are used as initial investments to hustle with, by resourceful inmates who use the pack of cookies to make brownies or cakes. The cookies, after being crushed up fine, are used for the base and the creme filling is used for the icing on top. To make the brownies, hot chocolate and peanut butter are added. Cakes can have diverse ingredients ranging from nuts, Chico-sticks, and energy mix, to nutty bars, pastries, and candy bars. Depending on the ingredients, these cake and brownie makers slang slices for 50 cents (two Ramen soups) up to a dollar of good money.
Cookies are obviously bought out of the pure monopoly prison stores that are located on each unit, but there are inmates who hoard commissary in their cells and run informal, illegal black market “stores.” They provide lucrative loans to other inmates at a two-for-one rate (100% profit margin), or three-for-two (50%). For many start-up businesses in society to break even on the books is to be doing good, so these outrageous ROI’s (return on investment), the inmate-operated stores make are like the Apple of prison life. Cookies are one of their hottest items. but in any business venture there are always costs. The greatest cost for a guy running a store are the other inmates in white uniforms. Eventually, there’s always an inmate-hater or roach, who was denied a loan, or he just can’t stand to see the next man doing good for himself, so he’ll snitch on the guys running their illegal stores and their cells get kick-doored by the authorities that be. But, like Apple,, these guys have a diversified portfolio and surplus resources (commissary) allocated abroad (other cells), so their stores take a licking and keep on ticking.
Lastly, cookies and coffee, when combined, are used for something else: social manipulation. You see, when I first came down nearly 21 years ago, a booty-bandit convict might have given a drive-up, gullible, newboot inmate a pack of cookies and other items as a temporary loan or favor. However, once the newboot, usually someone who looks weak and is weak-minded, consumes the goodies, the stronger convict would ask for the same stuff back. Well, the newboot could try to pay the convict back penny for penny, item for item, but they would never be the exact same items. The stronger convict (called the aggressor) would resort to strong-arm tactics towards the weaker inmate (the victim), with his ultimate goal being to break the in-debt inmate for his booty.
You’re laughing (maybe, but I’m serious. “Just let me do it one time, man, and you won’t owe me nothing.” Either that, or I kick your ass any time I feel like it.” After the stronger convict violated (sex) the weaker inmate, the inmate is forever changed, a process we call “getting turned out.” Meaning, the weaker inmate begins liking the sex and becomes the convict’s kid, or boy.
Because of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) passed by the U.S. Congress in a rare, unanimous 100-0 vote, the Texas state prison system has changed drastically over the past several years. Guys are still getting turned out, but now it’s more through careful manipulation and seduction, not through the physical abuse strategy that used to be prevalent behind these walls. The same stronger convict may invite a weaker inmate into his cell for cookies and coffee. Nothing happens. Next time while the inmate is enjoying the free cookies and coffee, the convict may pull out his jack picture collection for them to look at together. Nothing happens. The next time, when they’re sharing cookies and coffee, and lusting on jack pictures, in the midst of their mutually-aroused state, the convict may look for an excuse to change his boxers in front of the inmate, exposing his erect penis (raping the inmate’s mind). Still nothing happens. The convict “plays it off,” as we say, “Hey, we’re both guys, we see each other in the shower, so what’s the big deal.”
As this routine of patient seduction continues, the inmate develops a curious appetite for something else beyond the lure of cookies and coffee. I don’t have to tell you what happens next.
Be honest, you didn’t think there was that much to be said about cookies and coffee, did you? Just know that cookies and coffee in prison can either make or break a man, in more ways than one.