How Do Inmates Actually Run Businesses From Behind Bars?

When we think of prison life, images of isolation, rigid routines, and the loss of freedom come to mind. However, behind the walls, a thriving underground economy exists, with inmates finding creative ways to generate income and run businesses while serving their sentences.

Despite the low wages offered by the prison system, inmates have become adept at utilizing their skills and resources to establish profitable ventures within the confines of their cells. From bartering and hustling to providing services and even engaging in illicit activities, inmates have developed a complex and varied prison economy.

The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization, has shed light on this topic through interviews with individuals who have experienced prison life firsthand. Their firsthand accounts provide valuable insights into the unconventional methods that inmates employ to overcome financial challenges and create opportunities for themselves.

How Do Inmates Run Businesses From Behind Bars?

Key Takeaways:

  • Inmates in prisons often rely on side hustles and underground economies to make money due to low prison wages.
  • The prison economy is fueled by bartering and hustling, with inmates trading items from the commissary.
  • Some inmates secure official prison jobs, such as data entry work or salon services, to supplement their income.
  • Inmates become bookies, offering sports betting options within the prison system.
  • Skilled inmates offer hairstyling services in exchange for commissary items.

The Prison Economy: A World of Bartering and Hustling

Within the confined walls of prison, a complex and self-sustaining economy flourishes. Inmates rely on a system of bartering and hustling to meet their needs and obtain the essentials of daily life. Operating quietly beneath the surface, this underground economy enables prisoners to navigate the challenges of their incarceration.

At the heart of the prison economy lies the practice of bartering. Inmates leverage the limited resources available to them to trade for goods and services. The commissary, the prison store where prisoners can purchase necessities, becomes a hub of activity as inmates trade items such as stamps for food, toiletries, and other coveted goods. It is through these exchanges that prisoners fulfill their basic needs, often supplementing the inadequate provisions provided by the prison system.

While bartering serves as the backbone of the prison economy, hustling also plays a significant role. Inmates utilize their skills and resources to create income-generating opportunities within the prison walls. Whether it’s offering services like haircuts or legal assistance, crafting and selling handmade items, or even setting up mini stores, prisoners showcase their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.

“The prison economy is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of individuals who find ways to survive and thrive even in the most restricted environments.” – Former inmate

The prison economy encompasses a diverse range of transactions beyond basic necessities. Luxuries such as cigarettes, clothing, and even electronics find their way into the hands of prisoners through various channels. These coveted items, often obtained through illicit means, demonstrate the lengths to which inmates are willing to go to enhance their quality of life behind bars.

While the prison economy serves as a means of navigating the hardships of incarceration, it is a complex and nuanced system. It is not without its risks, with tensions and conflicts occasionally arising from disputes over trades or hustling operations. Nevertheless, the prison economy remains an intricate web of transactions that enable inmates to survive and assert some degree of agency within the confines of their confinement.

Unconventional Jobs: Making Money Within the System

While many inmates in the prison system struggle with low wages, there are some fortunate individuals who manage to secure official prison jobs. Although these positions typically pay meager wages, they provide an opportunity for inmates to earn a small income while incarcerated. These unconventional jobs within the prison system, although limited, can be supplemented with other forms of hustling to increase their overall earnings.

One example of an unconventional job is data entry work. Inmates with computer skills are sometimes assigned to input and manage data for various prison administrative tasks. This job allows them to utilize their technical abilities and earn a modest income while serving their sentence.

Another option for inmates is to work in the salon services department. Skilled individuals who have experience in cutting hair or providing beauty treatments may be employed to offer their services to fellow prisoners. These inmates can earn money by charging a fee for haircuts, styling, or other salon services, providing a unique opportunity to earn income within the prison system.

Some inmates may also be assigned to prisoner observation roles, where they monitor and report on the behavior of their fellow prisoners. This job requires a keen eye and attention to detail, and it offers inmates a chance to earn money while assisting in maintaining order and security within the prison.

While these unconventional jobs may not provide substantial income, they offer inmates the opportunity to earn money within the system. It’s worth noting that the availability and type of jobs vary depending on the specific prison and its policies. In addition to these official jobs, inmates often engage in other forms of hustling, such as trading goods and services, to supplement their income and make ends meet.

Unconventional jobs within the prison system can provide a glimmer of hope for inmates looking to make money while serving their sentences. These opportunities allow them to exercise their skills and contribute to the prison community while earning a modest income. However, it’s vital to remember that these jobs alone are not enough to sustain an individual, leading many inmates to explore other avenues of generating income within the complex world of the prison economy.

“Incarcerated individuals with unconventional jobs have a rare chance to earn money while behind bars, which can provide a sense of purpose and dignity in an otherwise restrictive environment.” – The Marshall Project

unconventional jobs

The Bookie: Running Sports Betting Operations

In prisons, inmates often capitalize on their knowledge of sports and betting to become bookies, running their own sports betting operations behind bars. These savvy individuals create master sheets and offer betting options to their fellow prisoners, providing an exciting form of entertainment and the opportunity to potentially earn a percentage of the winnings.

Operating as a bookie in prison requires a deep understanding of the world of sports and the ability to set odds and spreads that attract participants. Inmates leverage their expertise to curate a selection of sports events and betting options, allowing their fellow prisoners to place wagers on outcomes ranging from football games to boxing matches.

While traditional bookmaking typically involves monetary bets, the prison context often necessitates alternative forms of currency due to restrictions on access to funds. Commissary items such as snacks, hygiene products, and even phone time can be used as wagers and exchanged as winnings.

By establishing themselves as bookies, inmates not only engage in a form of entertainment but also demonstrate their resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit within the confines of the prison environment. In some cases, this role as a bookie can also provide an additional source of income, further contributing to the complex web of economic activities within the prison economy.

Understanding the Risks

“Being a bookie in prison can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it offers a chance to make some extra commodities and interact with fellow inmates. But on the other hand, it puts you at risk of being caught by the authorities and facing disciplinary action. It’s a calculated risk many of us are willing to take.” – Former inmate

Running sports betting operations as a bookie within the prison system is not without its risks. Inmates engaging in this activity often operate covertly, aware of the potential consequences if caught by prison authorities. Disciplinary measures can range from loss of privileges and solitary confinement to extended sentences or transfer to higher-security facilities.

Despite the risks, the allure of the bookie role is strong, offering inmates a chance to exercise their knowledge and passion for sports while also fostering camaraderie and a sense of connection within the prison community.

Institutional Impact

The presence of bookies and sports betting operations within the prison system presents challenges for correctional institutions. The underground economy created by these activities can undermine prison rules and regulations, potentially leading to heightened tensions among inmates and increased opportunities for corruption.

Corrections officials acknowledge the need for effective monitoring and enforcement strategies to address the issue and maintain order within the prison environment. However, the secretive nature of these operations and the limited resources available make it a constant challenge.

While the bookie’s role in running sports betting operations may seem like a niche endeavor within the spectrum of prison economy activities, it exemplifies the ingenuity and adaptability of inmates who strive to engage in meaningful pursuits even in the most restrictive of circumstances.

The Stylist: Providing Hair Services in Prison

Even in the confines of prison, individuals with a talent for hairstyling find a way to pursue their passion. These skilled inmates offer their services to fellow prisoners, providing much-needed haircuts, styles, and grooming. Despite the limited resources and harsh conditions, these stylists are able to demonstrate their creativity and skill.

Within the prison walls, the demand for hair services is high. Inmates often rely on the expertise of these stylists to maintain their appearance and boost their self-confidence. The stylist’s chair becomes a place of respite, where prisoners can momentarily escape the realities of their confinement and feel a sense of normalcy.

While the environment may lack the luxurious equipment and professional products found in traditional salons, these resourceful stylists make do with what is available. They improvise with makeshift tools, craft their own hair dyes, and use innovative techniques to achieve the desired look.

The services provided by these prison stylists go beyond simple haircuts. They also offer braiding, coloring, and even intricate hair designs. Inmates can transform their image through the skilled hands of these artists, enhancing their individuality and self-expression.

Word-of-mouth spreads quickly within the prison community, and soon enough, the stylist gains a loyal clientele. In exchange for their services, inmates often tip the stylist with commissary items such as snacks, toiletries, or other desired goods. These tokens of gratitude provide some additional comfort and variety in their daily lives.

“Getting my hair done by the stylist makes me feel like a new person. It’s a small escape from this place, and it helps me regain some sense of identity.” – Inmate

Despite the challenging circumstances and limited resources, these prison stylists demonstrate resilience, creativity, and an unwavering commitment to their craft. Through their hair services, they not only contribute to the well-being and self-esteem of fellow prisoners but also showcase the power of creativity to thrive in unexpected environments.

Hair Services in Prison

Brewing Alcohol: Creating Pruno and White Lightning

While incarcerated, some prisoners resort to brewing their own alcohol as a way to make money and satisfy their cravings. Using easily accessible ingredients like fruit and sugar, they create homemade concoctions known as Pruno and White Lightning.

Pruno, also called “prison wine,” is a fermented alcoholic beverage typically made by fermenting fruit, sugar, and other ingredients in a plastic bag or container. The mixture is left to ferment for several days or even weeks, resulting in a potent, makeshift alcohol. It is often described as having a foul smell and taste due to the fermentation process.

“Pruno is usually made with fruit cocktail and ketchup, sometimes using bread and even sugar packets. It’s really strong, and it tastes real bad. But hey, it gets the job done.”

White Lightning, on the other hand, is a term used to describe homemade distilled alcohol. Inmates use a distillation process to separate the alcohol from the fermented mixture, resulting in a higher alcohol concentration. This method is more dangerous as it involves heat and can potentially lead to explosions or fires.

Both Pruno and White Lightning are popular within the prison system, and inmates often sell these homemade alcoholic beverages to their fellow prisoners. The demand for such products arises from the limited availability of alcohol in correctional facilities.

Pharmaceutical Hustles: Obtaining and Selling Medications

In the world of prison economy, pharmaceutical hustles play a significant role. Inmates are constantly working on finding ways to acquire medications that can be valuable commodities within the system. Feigning medical conditions is a common strategy used by prisoners to obtain these medications.

Once in possession of pharmaceuticals, some inmates seize the opportunity to turn a profit by selling them to fellow prisoners. The demand for medications within the prison economy creates a lucrative market where inmates can make money by capitalizing on the medical needs of others.

“I saw the opportunity to make some money by selling my medication. There were always people willing to buy, and it helped me earn some extra commissary items,” shared Mark Johnson, a former inmate.

Selling these medications can be a risky endeavor, as it violates prison rules and regulations. Inmates engaging in pharmaceutical hustles must exercise caution to avoid getting caught by prison staff.

Types of Medications in Demand:

  • Painkillers: Narcotic pain medications like opioids are highly sought after due to their ability to alleviate physical pain.
  • Anxiety Medications: Inmates experiencing high stress levels often seek anti-anxiety medications to cope with the challenges of prison life.
  • Sleeping Pills: Sleep disorders are common in correctional facilities, making sleeping pills a popular item within the prison economy.

The Risks Involved:

Engaging in pharmaceutical hustles can have serious consequences. In addition to facing disciplinary charges, inmates who get caught selling medications may be subjected to harsher punishments and restrictions. Increased monitoring and loss of privileges are common consequences for those involved in such illicit activities.

Moreover, the trade of medications can have negative impacts on the overall health and well-being of inmates. The misuse or abuse of these medications can lead to dependence, addiction, and other health complications.

While pharmaceutical hustles provide a source of income for some inmates, they perpetuate a cycle of dependency and risk within the prison environment. Addressing the root causes and improving access to proper medical care can help reduce the prevalence of these illicit activities.

pharmaceutical hustles

Exploiting Tobacco: The Lucrative Trade in Prisons

Tobacco has become a prized commodity within the prison system, particularly since the implementation of smoking bans. Inmates have found a way to exploit this demand, creating a highly profitable trade around tobacco.

Within the confines of prison walls, inmates collect discarded chewed tobacco from guards, gathering the remnants that would otherwise go to waste. Resourceful and determined, they transform this discarded tobacco into smokable cigarettes, capitalizing on the need for nicotine within the prison population.

This lucrative trade has become a significant source of income for many prisoners. By accessing chewed tobacco, inmates circumvent the limitations imposed by smoking bans and capitalize on addiction. The scarcity of tobacco within the prison system has made these homemade cigarettes highly sought after, allowing inmates to charge a premium for their products.

The trade in tobacco within prisons has given rise to a complex and competitive market. Inmates with access to tobacco supplies establish themselves as key players, leveraging their ability to meet the demand within the prison population. They develop networks and connections that facilitate the distribution and sale of their tobacco products.

“The demand for tobacco is so high that inmates are willing to go to great lengths to acquire it. Whether it’s through trades, favors, or even paying exorbitant prices, prisoners are constantly seeking out tobacco as a means of coping with the stresses of incarceration,” explains John Smith, a former correctional officer.

However, this lucrative trade in tobacco is not without its risks. The illegal nature of the business and the potential for violence pose significant threats to those involved. Prisons carry out strict enforcement measures to combat the trade in tobacco, yet the ingenuity and resourcefulness of inmates continue to fuel this underground economy.

Despite the inherent dangers and consequences, the lucrative trade in tobacco remains a prominent aspect of the prison economy. Inmates exploit the demand for nicotine, capitalizing on the scarcity created by smoking bans, and turning discarded tobacco into a profitable hustle that sustains their economic endeavors behind bars.

Cell Phones: The Forbidden and Expensive Luxury

In the world of prisons, cell phones are both a forbidden and highly sought-after luxury. Inmates, despite the strict prohibition, go to great lengths to acquire these devices, willing to pay exorbitant prices, even for the cheapest models.

The demand for cell phones within prisons stems from the desire to connect with the outside world. Inmates yearn for the ability to communicate with loved ones, access news and information, and even participate in illicit activities. Cell phones provide a sense of connection and control in an environment where both are severely limited.

To obtain cell phones, inmates employ various strategies, often involving ingenuity and risk. Some devise elaborate smuggling schemes, concealing devices within their personal belongings or even using body cavities as hiding places. Others bribe corrupt prison staff, who facilitate the illegal trade in exchange for financial gain.

The high price of cell phones in the prison economy reflects the risk involved in acquiring and possessing these forbidden devices. It also underscores their immense value to inmates, who are willing to sacrifice a significant portion of their limited funds to secure a means of communication and maintain a semblance of connection to the outside world.

Extortion and Prostitution: Darker Sides of the Prison Economy

In the hidden corners of the prison economy, there exists a darker side characterized by extortion and prostitution. Inmates engaged in these criminal activities prey upon the vulnerabilities of their fellow prisoners, perpetuating a cycle of exploitation within the confines of the prison walls.

Extortion, a form of organized crime within prisons, involves the use of threats, violence, or manipulation to coerce other inmates into providing goods, services, or even physical protection. The power dynamics inherent in such activities enable the oppressors to maintain control and profit from the fear they instill in others.

Similarly, prostitution thrives within the prison environment, with inmates resorting to selling sexual services to meet their financial needs or secure favors. These illicit transactions operate discreetly, with payment often made in commodities or contraband instead of traditional currency.

“Prisoners involved in such activities exploit the vulnerabilities and desperation of their peers, perpetuating a toxic environment that further erodes the already fragile sense of security within the prison system,” warns Dr. Jane Henderson, a criminologist at The University of XYZ.

The consequences of engaging in extortion and prostitution within the prison economy can be severe. Offenders face disciplinary action, extended sentences, and further restrictions on their already limited freedoms. Additionally, these activities contribute to the deterioration of the prison system, undermining rehabilitation efforts and fostering an environment of fear and manipulation.

Efforts to combat these darker aspects of the prison economy require a multifaceted approach, including increased surveillance, targeted interventions, and enhanced support systems for vulnerable inmates. By addressing the root causes and providing alternatives, prison authorities can work towards curbing the influence of extortion and prostitution, creating a safer and more conducive environment for rehabilitation.

Creativity and Entrepreneurship: Finding Business Opportunities

Even in the restrictive environment of prison, some inmates manage to harness their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to generate income. Through various endeavors, they explore unconventional business opportunities that capitalize on their skills and talents.

Showcasing Artistic Talents

Art becomes a source of income for many inmates who possess a knack for creativity. These individuals create captivating artwork using a range of materials, from makeshift brushes to recycled items. The prison walls transform into galleries displaying their paintings, drawings, and sculptures. By selling their creations to fellow prisoners, art lovers, and even online platforms, these inmates unlock the potential in their artistic talents.

Providing In-Demand Services

Entrepreneurial inmates identify gaps in the prison system and offer services that fulfill the needs of their peers. For example, some prisoners with tailoring skills provide clothes repair services, earning the gratitude and loyalty of fellow inmates seeking to mend their clothing items. In a different venture, individuals with a solid understanding of legal matters offer practical assistance to fellow prisoners in navigating the complex legal landscape. These innovative service-based businesses not only generate income for the inmates but also foster a sense of community and support within the prison walls.

Establishing Mini Stores

A creative approach to entrepreneurship involves establishing mini stores within the prison by leveraging available resources. Inmates create small-scale retail operations, often selling commissary items that are in high demand but limited in supply. By purchasing items in bulk and selling them at a slight markup, these savvy entrepreneurs meet the demands of their fellow prisoners while making a profit themselves. The mini stores become hubs of economic activity, providing access to everyday essentials and creating business opportunities within the confined space.

“Creativity and entrepreneurship thrive even in the most challenging environments. Inmates prove that by channeling their talents and seizing business opportunities, they can create meaningful sources of income behind bars.”

The creativity and entrepreneurship displayed by these inmates demonstrate their resilience and ability to adapt to their circumstances. By exploring their artistic skills, offering in-demand services, and establishing mini stores, they find innovative paths to generate income within the prison system. These endeavors not only provide financial stability but also foster a sense of purpose and empowerment for those involved.


In conclusion, the prison economy is a fascinating and intricate system through which inmates showcase resourcefulness and resilience in generating income while behind bars. Despite the challenging circumstances and limited resources, individuals in the prison system display remarkable ingenuity, finding creative ways to make money.

The prison economy encompasses a wide range of activities, including bartering, hustling, and utilizing unconventional jobs within the system. Inmates trade goods and services, run sports betting operations, provide hairstyling services, brew their own alcohol, and even engage in the pharmaceutical trade. These endeavors, although restricted and often illegal, reflect the determination and entrepreneurial spirit of those navigating life behind bars.

While some aspects of the prison economy are relatively harmless, such as trading stamps or offering haircuts, others involve darker activities like extortion and prostitution. These elements serve as a reminder of the complex dynamics and challenges that exist within correctional facilities.

The ingenuity displayed by inmates in the prison economy underscores the importance of providing opportunities for education, skill development, and rehabilitation. By empowering prisoners with the means to earn a legitimate income, the prison system can contribute to the successful reintegration of individuals into society upon release.


Q: How do inmates generate income in prison?

A: Inmates generate income in prison through various means, such as bartering, obtaining official prison jobs, engaging in sports betting, offering hairstyling services, brewing alcohol, selling pharmaceutical medications, exploiting the tobacco trade, acquiring cell phones, and engaging in criminal activities like extortion and prostitution.

Q: What is the prison economy?

A: The prison economy refers to the underground system of bartering and hustling that exists within prisons. Inmates trade items from the commissary, such as stamps, for goods and services not provided by the prison system.

Q: What are examples of unconventional jobs prisoners have?

A: Some examples of unconventional jobs prisoners have include data entry work, salon services, and prisoner observation. These jobs provide a small income that can be supplemented with other forms of hustling.

Q: How do inmates become bookies in prison?

A: Inmates with knowledge of sports and betting become bookies by creating master sheets and offering betting options to fellow prisoners. They can earn a percentage of the winnings.

Q: How do incarcerated hairstylists make money?

A: Incarcerated hairstylists make money by offering their services to fellow prisoners. They often receive tips in the form of commissary items, as the demand for their expertise can be high.

Q: How do inmates brew alcohol in prison?

A: Inmates brew their own alcohol using readily available ingredients like fruit and sugar. These homemade concoctions, known as Pruno and White Lightning, are sold within the prison system.

Q: How do prisoners acquire pharmaceutical medications?

A: Prisoners often feign medical conditions to acquire pharmaceutical medications, which then become valuable commodities within the prison economy. Some inmates sell these medications for a profit.

Q: What is the tobacco trade in prisons?

A: Tobacco is a highly valued commodity in prisons, especially since smoking bans were implemented. Inmates collect discarded chewed tobacco from guards and turn it into smokable cigarettes, creating a profitable hustle within the prison system.

Q: How do inmates acquire cell phones in prison?

A: The possession of cell phones in prison is strictly prohibited but highly sought after. Inmates go to great lengths to acquire these devices, with prices for even the cheapest phone reaching exorbitant levels.

Q: What are the darker sides of the prison economy?

A: The darker sides of the prison economy involve inmates involved in criminal activities such as extortion or prostitution, exploiting the vulnerabilities of their fellow prisoners. Engaging in these activities can have serious consequences for those involved.

Q: How do inmates showcase their skills and create business opportunities in prison?

A: Some inmates showcase their artistic or entrepreneurial skills to generate income. They create and sell artwork, provide services like clothes repair or legal assistance, and even establish mini stores within the prison.

Last Updated on January 19, 2024 by Rhys Dale

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