Hooch in the Ceiling

A few nights ago after the cells had been locked down and most inmates had gone to bed, I saw yellow beams of light bouncing around the dark interior of the unit outside my cell. I climbed down from my bunk to investigate.

Three officers armed with flashlights and a step ladder were trotting up the stairs towards the top tier, keys jangling from their belts. You can always tell when there’s a guard around–they’re like walking maracas.

At the top of the landing, just opposite of the stairs, is a row of six shower stalls. One by one, the officers opened each door and aimed their flashlights inside stirring the sleeping gnats from their dank slumber. They continued down the row examining each stall carefully until they reached on that piqued their interest.

The step ladder was then unfolded within the center of the stall and mounted by the tallest of the three officers while the remaining tow stood with their flashlights fixated on the stall’s ceiling.

After a few minutes of finagling with his hands stretched above his head, the tallest ducked down and handed the others what appeared to be the metal enclosure of the stall’s light fixture.

Once that was set aside, the officer climbed farther up the ladder and disappeared into the hole where the light had once been. He descended a moment later with both hands gripped firmly around a small waste basket filled with fermenting, home-brewed hooch.

The officers took the pale and set it aside while the tallest ascended the ladder again and produced another pale of hooch. . . and then another. . . and another until finally there were four pales total sitting in a row on the floor.

It’s amazing the amount of energy that some inmates will expend on such enterprises. If they can make booze from fruit juice, tattoo guns out of hair clippers, and free weights out of a laundry and a few books, just imagine all that could be accomplished if that energy were focused into something constructive.

I must admit, however, that the sheer inventiveness and resourcefulness that goes on in prison is really quite impressive.

For example, the stock AM/FM Sony Walkman radios sold at commissary are quite lousy, so the inmates make their own improvements. The most popular modification involves cutting away some of the radio’s excess circuit board to accommodate larger, double-A batteries (as apposed to triple-A) thereby increasing play time and reducing battery consumption. Other inmates increase the reception quality and volume output by soldering some of the internal circuitry, and a simple yet clever hack turns a pair of headphones and an empty roll of toilet paper into an external speaker.

In addition to inventiveness, entrepreneurship is also alive and well in prison. Many inmate stockpile goods from commissary to create their own stores that are open on days when the commissary is closed; some setup massive underground gambling rings and book wagers on weekend sports broadcasts; others manage their own cleaning service and wash laundry and clean cells for a monthly fee; the intellectuals type and proofread legal documents for other inmates; and the artists make and sell handmade leather crafts such as wallets, radio cases, jewelry, and make personalized greeting cards that are varnished with floor wax to give them a glossy finish.

Meanwhile, I’m proud for having repurposed an empty peanut butter container into a pen holder. How lame.

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