This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Every now and then, you'll see reports of prisoners uploading banter photos to Facebook. More often than not, the reports will mention a cell phone whose makers tout as the smallest in the world. The Zanco Fly measures 7.1 cm by 2.1 cm, and—as it's made almost entirely of plastic—can often go undetected by scanners when smuggled into prisons across the UK. The "ass phone," as it's known by prisoners, retails for £25 [$35] on the outside, but is being sold to inmates for up to £500 [$703].
I teach at a prison and have been aware for some time that prisoners will pay largely inflated prices for goods, but this markup surprised me. I decided to ask my students whether they had ever paid radically over the odds for any "imports"—and, if so, whether it was worth it.
Adam is 27 years old and has been charged with supplying class A drugs. If convicted, this will be his second sentence relating to drug offences, and his fourth overall. A calm character, Adam tells me he is relaxed about the prospect of being found guilty, but is quite sure he has a strong enough case to avoid a conviction.
I ask Adam if he has ever paid over the odds for any prison imports. "Yeah, of course," he explains. "On my last sentence, I got shipped to a prison further up where I didn’t know anyone. First things first, I need a phone so I can sort out one or two bits of business on the outside, just tying up loose ends, you get me? So, it’s a piece of shit phone, the screen is all smashed up—it takes half an hour to send my mrs. a fucking WhatsApp with the address to my lockup. Does the job, but £250 [$351] for that when you’d have to pay cash converters to take it off your hands on the outside is absolute jokes."
I ask Adam whether people who are on their own inside are the most susceptible to paying the huge markups. "Yeah, like I said, I got screwed over because I didn't know anyone. The sellers always target the new prisoners—first week they’ll be in their ear telling them what they can get, telling them how they can pay in installments, and all of that. They never mention the fucking interest until they’re handing the phone or the meds over, though. It's too late by then. I’m not saying I’ve never sold a bit of burn [tobacco] for twice the price, but I’ve never been unreasonable."
Carling in the Wardrobe
Christopher is 29 years old, and coming to the end of a five-year sentence for robbery. He was returned from open prison for being caught in possession of a crate of Carling [beer] in his wardrobe and is pretty open about his willingness to take a chance and manipulate the system when an opportunity presents itself. "My plan," he says, "was to have a few of the cans for myself and sell the rest of them for a fiver each. Everyone in a Cat C [open prison] is earning more than enough dollars to afford it, and who doesn’t enjoy a can after a long day at work?"
Christopher explains further: "I've been there myself at the start of this sentence. I was depressed for the first few months, and every other man in here was on the meds, but I knew that was a fucking black hole I didn't need to go down. I ended up getting into clomp [weed] and bought a pre-rolled spliff one night for 80 fucking quid [$112]. I didn’t have any way of paying it off, so in the end, I just asked the geezer if he wanted anyone slapping. Debt cleared."
'What's a Few Dollars at the End of the Day?'
Thirty-six-year-old Robert has pleaded guilty to assaulting his brother-in-law and is expecting a sentence in the region of 18 months to two years. He’ll probably serve about half of that, as long as he stays out of trouble and completes the suggested behavioral management course he has been offered. This is Robert’s first time in prison, but his background—having attended boarding school from the age of 12—seems to have prepared him for periods of enforced absences from loved ones. It has also seemingly shaped his attitude toward illicit items and their market value.
"An item’s value is what an individual is willing to pay for it. I paid my friend 15 quid [$21] for a slice of Domino's at school once, so why would it be a surprise that people in here are paying six times the price for a pair of Reebok Classics?" he says. I ask whether he has splurged on anything while in prison. "Well, no, not for me. But I did sort my cellmate out with a loan of a mobile so he could call his mom. The poor guy was a first-timer; he wasn't coping too well, so I helped him. Forty pounds [$56] for 15 minutes is ridiculous, but I'll be out soon, so what’s a few quid [dollars] at the end of the day?"
A Grand for a Pair of Huaraches
Bob, 44, is serving a four-month sentence for an incident of domestic violence and breaking the terms of his license. He’s been in and out of prison since his late teens and has lost count of the total number of sentences he has served. I ask him whether the kind of super-inflation of prices that sees a £25 [$35] mobile go for £500 [$703] is something that has always existed in prisons.
"You'd always pay double bubble for a bit of tobacco, but nothing like this. It’s getting worse now because the screws [prison guards] don’t have the time to spin enough cells to find whatever’s coming in," he says. "Most of them are so stressed that if they see a prisoner swapping clothes on a visit with their brother, they’ll just turn a blind eye. Listen, it ain’t a joke anymore. I was two-ed up with this young guy, he was a real Scarface wannabe—he pays a grand for a pair of Huaraches. Three days later, he gets turned over by four guys and the shoes are gone. A fucking grand for no sneakers and a fractured eye-socket. The poor guy was wearing a pair of my old flip-flops for two weeks—and no, I didn’t charge him for them."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.