Every now and then, you'll see reports of prisoners uploading banter photos to Facebook. More often than not, the reports will mention a mobile phone whose makers tout as the smallest in the world. The Zanco Fly measures 7.1cm by 2.1cm, and – as it's made almost entirely of plastic – can often go undetected by scanners when smuggled into prisons across the UK. The "arse phone", as it's known by prisoners, retails for £25 on the outside, but is being sold to inmates for up to £500.
I teach at a prison and have been aware for some time that prisoners will pay largely inflated prices for goods, but this mark-up 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 nick up country 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, screen 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 for that when you’d have to pay Crack 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 mark-ups. "Yeah, like I said, I got screwed over, because I didn't know anyone at this new nick. 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 instalments and all that. They never mention the fucking interest until they’re handing the phone or the meds over, though. Too late then. I’m not saying I’ve never sold a bit of burn [tobacco] for twice the price, but I’ve never taken the piss with it."
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 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 dollar 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. Head was proper in the shed for the first few months, 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 end up getting proper into clomp [weed], and bought a pre-rolled spliff one night for 80 fucking quid. I didn’t have any way of paying it off, so in the end just asked the geezer if he wanted anyone slapping. Debt cleared, but it’s a mug’s game."
'What's a Few Quid 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 behavioural management course on offer. 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 towards illicit items and their market value.
"An item’s value is what an individual is willing to pay for it. I paid my mate 15 quid 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 mum. Poor bloke was a first timer, not coping too well, so I sorted him. Forty pounds for 15 minutes is ridiculous, but I'll be out soon, so what’s a few quid 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 mobile go for £500 is something that has always existed in prisons.
"You'd always pay double bubble on a bit of baccy, but nothing like this. It’s getting worse now because the screws 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 jumpers 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 lad, proper Scarface wannabe – he pays a grand for a pair of Huaraches. Three days later he gets turned over by four lads and the shoes are gone. A fucking grand for no trainers and a fractured eye-socket. The daft git was wearing a pair of my old flip-flops for two weeks – and no, I didn’t charge him for them."