When you imagine guys smuggling contraband into jails, you're probably thinking of water balloons filled with dope, exchanged via tongue wrestling or awkwardly premeditated handshakes.
But actually, most of my incarcerated friends tell me about a very different style of contraband. Their favourite—and the very last item on the Corrections Victoria contraband list—is the seemingly innocuous USB stick.
USBs are banned in Australia's prison system because the technology is seen as too difficult to screen. From child porn found on a USB at Hopkins Correctional Centre, to inmates surfing the web from their cells in the maximum security Barwon Prison, the fight to have USBs embraced as a tool for therapy is an uphill battle.
To find out more about the trade in illicit USBs, I wound up at a pub waiting for a guy nicknamed Toman the Uzbeki. He's allegedly the most popular USB dealer in the system after spending half a brick (five years) in Victoria's maximum security Barwon prison. Naturally, I was expecting a hulking gargoyle, in TN's and an Adidas bumbag. Instead, Toman had a haircut like Ronaldo, tech fleece tracksuit pants, and bright Asics cross-trainers.
I asked him about why prisoners like USBs so much, under the agreement I wouldn't ask how he actually gets them into the jails.
VICE: Hey Toman, why are your USBs so popular?
Toman the Uzbeki: Well, I used to work at a Blockbuster video store when I was like 15. I could tell what kind of movies customers wanted. So now I make custom catalogues based on the type of people they are. Some old school boobheads are into drama, history movies, and docos. The young guys like the UFC. Others are into family dramas that remind them of being on the outside—movies they had taken their girls to on dates, or watched with their kids.
Reminds me of stories my mum would tell me about the release of new films in Afghanistan. How excited they were as kids and how nostalgic they get when they re-watch those films here now.
Yeah brother, it really keeps everyone busy, literally, and in their heads. The biggest killer in jail is boredom. When everyone's bored that's when you see the worst of the people and the place. Movies are our way out. So when the dogs [prison officers] decide to raid our cells, blokes in solitary ban their visits because they want to watch the new Will Ferrell movie. The whole vibe of the place kinda turns. All they want to do is pass time and I reckon its a lot safer and better for rehabilitation for them to be jacking off to Briana Banks than sharing ice from a used fix [syringe].
With so much access to media content on the outside, we kind of forget how it might feel to be exiled from the internet.
Yeah, after the first week or so of remand—when you're feeling nervous and trying to get your head around all the politics and you're unsure what jail is going to be like—you snuggle into a routine that revolves a lot of free-to-air TV. Then when I got shipped to Barwon, I heard that people had USB drives you could plug into the front of your TV. I quickly traded a pouch of White OX [tobacco] for porn and the latest Fast and the Furious flick.
And that's what made you start organising your own USB drives?
Yeah, and with hustling there was so much to gain. I was getting new kicks every week. My buy up was sorted. I could look after all the boys and shout the unit. It made me feel like I was giving back to our little community and I was important, you know, I had a job, a purpose.
But what if some of your films were violent? Was it ever triggering?
Well, over the brief stint I was there, my USBs did a lot less harm than good. We watched some pretty violent stuff and no one ever came out of their cell wanting to bash heads. That kinda stuff happened in jail before there were TVs and will happen long after USBs.
What was the best and weirdest shit anyone asked for?
Oh my favourite would have to be the show Oz. Boys almost went to war over which one was better, Sopranos or Oz. The weirdest was this Slovakian cat who wanted every George Michael music video was out there. But when I delivered he stormed my cell the next day, rattling his head off because one of the Wham! clips weren't on there.
You told me a few Underbelly characters made some special requests.
Oh yeah, they were just obsessed with themselves. They never wanted any of the other blokes in the unit to know they were asking for their show. But maybe they were just chuffed someone cared enough to tell their story. Yeah they did something, and will be remembered for it. That's all we wanted I guess, for someone to notice we weren't there. It's all we all want on the outside too, for no one to forget.
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