The holidays serve as yet another reminder that I am doing time, time away from family and friends, time spent wasting away in front of a TV, time entertaining strangers with superficial conversations.
The time-management system imposed upon us by the prison is strict and monotonous, but each individual must decide how they will utilize their “free” time.
Arts and crafts are a favorite pastime for many incarcerated people. Artwork, and greeting cards, in particular, take on a different significance in the prison context.
For the incarcerated population, postal mail is our most accessible mode of communication, making a prison gift card market inevitable. Some people lack the ability or desire to make cards, but they may be fortunate enough to have a financial support system so they can pay an artist for their handiwork.
I have also encountered people who make cards, collages or ornate letters not for profit, but as a hobby or out of a sincere desire to connect with their loved ones on that missed birthday or holiday.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ disciplinary procedures, “Any inmate who engages in a business or enterprise, whether or not for profit, or who sells anything except as specifically allowed … is guilty of enterprises and fraud.”
I cannot agree with further punishing someone in a difficult situation who is trying to better themselves. It takes a savvy and dedicated mind to see the supply and demand market at work, and use their resources and skills to pave their own way.
I have spoken to most of the artists and cardmakers in my unit. Talking to them, I realized how differently each person involved is impacted, depending on where they fall in this closed, little economy behind prison walls.
To put things in perspective, I work laundry on the unit. This requires long hours that I could use to study or practice playing the guitar, but I need the money.
When the biweekly institution pay is distributed, I am always disappointed to see earnings of just $2.25 for the entire period. Because I owe the state thousands of dollars in court fees, 85% of any funds I receive, including anything sent by family and friends, is deducted. Without the laundry job, I would receive 90 cents every two weeks. This is quite a shock, considering that the commissary charges $2.79 for a jar of peanut butter as of the beginning of November.
By contrast, a man in my prison whose sought-after cards involve pop-up paper mechanics and vibrant imagery, told me he has sold more than “100 cards at $3 a card.”
“That was in one Christmas season!” he said.
Pablo treats making cards as his job, and he is able to sustain himself financially. He has many returning customers. Some even have people outside send money to his prison account rather than paying for the cards in the common prison currency of purchased canteen items.
In an age of technology and instant digital transmissions, it’s rare to receive handmade gifts and cards — and they should be appreciated. These individuals spend hours of effort and diligence to create something personalized.
Being incarcerated, we must rely on loved ones outside to get by. Maybe those are the very people we would rather be spending the holidays with. In our absence, we send a card as an attempt to fill the void.
Brian Bragg is a Prison Journalism Project writer incarcerated at Stanley Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.