To better describe the Underground Economy, let me copy and paste text from my new book, Prepare – What Defendants Need to Know About Lawyers/ Mitigation/ Sentencing/Prison/First Step Act. Chapter 22

What Is The Underground Economy in Federal Prison?

“Many people go into the prison system with the intention of avoiding all problems and getting out of prison at the soonest possible time. Every day they have the power to make decisions with regard to how they’re going to respond to their environment. They do not have the power to decide how others will respond to the environment. The more they understand about prison, the more they empower themselves to navigate the challenges and complexities successfully.

When judges sentence people to prison, the prisoners become wards of the system.

In the BOP, the government assumes control and responsibility for each person’s existence. While a person serves time in the BOP, he’s deprived of the opportunity to earn a living. The system provides basic needs. Along with a bed, or a mat, the system issues sheets and blankets. People get standard clothing. The men have reasonable access to showers and bathroom facilities. The BOP provides three daily meals. If a person needs medical attention, a process exists for him to follow.

Essentially, the system reduces men in prison to a status equivalent to that of highly dependent child, but without the toys and goodnight kisses.

Adults do not react well to this stripping of independence and responsibility.

Rules do not allow for much in the way of personal possessions. If a person accumulates property—like clothing, nicer sneakers, sunglasses, watches, or radios—that the prison does not issue, staff may confiscate the property as contraband. Staff members may also cite the person with a disciplinary infraction.

Those not mentally prepared for the complexities of prison life may feel their identities being stripped away. Over time, people resent the institution’s quest for total control. They do not want to be restricted to wearing only government-issue clothing. They do not want government-issue food. And they do not want to eat only at times dictated by institutional rules. Rather, like all human beings, people want autonomy over their lives. They want the freedom to make choices. Some people try to bend the system. If they are caught, they should expect punishment that may result in harsher living conditions or longer stays in prison.

Some people adjust to the rigidity of rules and regulations by creating their own informal bartering system—or underground economy. They create an exchange of goods and services.

This universal aspect of prison life represents one response to the total control that administrators strive to exercise over the lives of the men in confinement.

Through covert exchanges between themselves, people lift some of the monotony that comes with institutional living.

Every day for years at a time, people in prison listen to the same bells that ring at the same time. Rules dictate where they are supposed to be, what they are supposed to be doing, and how they are supposed to be doing it. Regulations dictate what people are supposed to be wearing at those times when they are supposed to be complying with the machine.

People do not ask why so many rules exist. The monotony machine does not provide answers. A long-term prisoner knows exactly what he will be doing five years in the future because it’s the same thing he is doing today. If he has been incarcerated for a while, it may be the same thing he was doing five years ago.

Endless repetition might drive a man to madness if there were no opportunities to bring some variation to his life.

Since the prison system does not provide opportunities for much in the way of differentiation, the men create it for themselves through the underground economy. Although a person may choose not to participate in the underground economy, it’s wise to understand how it operates.”

Justin Paperny