The prison black market specialist.
In every prison nationwide exists a man on whom every inmate depends: the extraordinary, smooth-talking convict who can deliver—for a price—anything you ever wanted, even the things you don’t want. An agent, middleman, who regulates supply and demand, a walking swap meet or newsstand—he always delivers. Everyone knows him, even the guards. His presence is most conspicuous. Over the years, he earns respect and is trusted. He’s known as “HUSTLE MAN.”
In 13 years of imprisonment, I’ve encountered many hustle men at various joints in the system, from maximum-security facilities such as New Folsom and Tehachapi to minimum-security units at California Mens Colony in San Luis Obispo and Soledad Prison, where I serve now. No Hustle Man, though, compares to the very first one I met while housed in L.A. County Jail as I awaited trial on my first case. This man’s name is legendary in the California prison system, and he’s recognized as “The Best.”
He had served nearly all his juvenile and adult life in jails and prisons. He had what is called an “A” number in prison, meaning he first received his prison ID in the late 1950s. He never discharged this number because he never successfully completed his parole, a sign that he was a career criminal.
Paul Jones was an immense, muscular black man in his 60s, very dark, bald, yet presenting a youthful face that exuded charm and eloquence, a voice that sounded confident and persuasive, like an ace car salesman. His quick wit could readily size you up — especially your vulnerabilities — and prey on them for his own benefit.
At the Wayside Facility, a branch of LA County Jail, in a dorm called Medium North, Paul’s bunk resided in the corner, noticeably off from the other double bunks that housed 100 inmates. While every inmate slept on a thin Army-like mattress, Paul had a huge, quadruple-layered cushioned mattress resembling a hospital bed. While everyone else was issued gray scratchy Navy blankets, Paul had soft white cotton blankets. No one had pillows. Paul had a big fluffy one.
I didn’t find Paul; he found me. He had seen my case on television. When I was housed in the dorm, he introduced himself, playing on the fact that I was a naïve first-timer. We began to talk about prison life, and what it would be like. He revealed everything, telling me war stories about the ‘70s—the Black Panthers, the Brown Shirts, revolutionaries who fought for prison rights. I listened with great enthusiasm, for he was the expert.
Paul had committed crimes over four decades. He’d fathered a dozen children, mostly in conjugal visit trailers. His rap sheet was the number of pages in a typical Hollywood screenplay. A career burglar whose specialty was robbing the rich; he was a modern day Robin Hood targeting rich Iranians or Jewish families living in hilltop estates in the Hollywood Hills or Beverly Hills. From decades of incarceration, Paul became “institutional,” became the ultimate predator. His eyes homed in on people like lasers, like an eagle hovering for food. He possessed ultra-sensitive hearing to catch conversations taking place everywhere in the dorm.
Like a coyote, he missed nothing, learned to survive and beat the system and make himself as comfortable as possible – like home – while doing time. While everyone else drank water or Kool-Aid from jail-issued Dixie cups, Paul had a coffee mug, which he snagged from the trash when a deputy threw it out. The ultimate opportunist, he saw what he wanted and did everything to get it.
Paul spent hours studying the behavior and habits of people. During the one year I was housed with him, I became his protégé, observing his every move in an effort to learn all I could. Inmates doing time in County Jail usually have the support of family or friends and therefore are not hard up for money. They make their canteen weekly. Since Paul had nobody helping him, he developed a number of hustles that provided him with more money or canteen than he could have spent in months. Inmates brought bags of canteen to him. For Paul, it wasn’t about the money; it was about the chase, the score; the same kind of rush he felt burglarizing the rich.
Every morning and evening, he got in line for pill call. The people in line were mostly zombie-like inmates who couldn’t handle the sentence without heavy “meds” to sleep all day. I found out that Paul was “cheeking” or “palming” his pills and selling them to dopers. Paul wasn’t insane. He went to the medical clinic every week, and always returned with brand new expensive lotions, shoe soles, shampoo, special soap, toothpaste; items not available at the canteen.
He would sell all of it for canteen. He obtained everything from manipulating the prison doctor by faking illnesses. He complained of rashes from a wool blanket, which enabled him to secure a soft white cotton blanket. He complained of back pain, which resulted in getting a thick mattress and morphine. If the medical staff refused him items, he knew the law, knew how to file a grievance that forced their hand.
He was no lawyer, could not even read well, but through years of imprisonment he had learned how to file writs in court challenging prison conditions, learned how to beat cases on technicalities, and how to put together a lawsuit to sue for money.
Paul introduced me to the power of the “writ of habeas corpus.” He did legal work for inmates and received pay for it. Surprisingly, his hustle reached out even to free society via mail and phone calls.
A row of telephones for “inmates only” was available to use at any time. Every night, Paul dialed random numbers—always collect—fishing, in hopes of catching a female answering. If a woman answered, he commenced to smooth talk her, reasoning that only a very lonely woman answered a jail call at night. He was right. Once he got a woman under his spell, he would use her to make “three-way calls” for other inmates who couldn’t get through to their wives or families because of collect call blocking.
Of course, he charged for every three-way call. He amassed a collection of women friends who have supported him throughout the decades. Doctors, lawyers, professional businesswomen, intelligent women who were too busy to have a real man in their lives, chose Paul’s fantasy. He copied beautiful poetry from library books to use in his letters to them. He wrote on customized stationary stolen from the prison chapel. He used expensive pens snagged from doctors when they turned their backs. His letters were full of romance, drama and adventure. He used tales from the Renaissance, each letter a detailed masterpiece, enclosed in a Victorian-style envelope.
Money orders from women flowed in monthly to his prison account, 100 to 500 dollars every month. He told these ladies what they wanted to hear. Always agreed with what they said, listened intently, but never provided solutions to their problems.
At dinner, Paul didn’t eat the jail slop with the rest of us, but prepared his own meals every day. I wondered how in the world he sometimes returned from the female psychiatrist’s office with a McDonald’s hamburger still in its wrapping.
That was 1994. Fast-forward to today.
Recently, I watched the new generation HUSTLE MAN standing amid a group of inmates waiting for canteen. As I approached “Pete,” he turned toward me, opening his baggy prison-issue jacket, exposing multiple pockets containing lots of different merchandise for sale. Some belonged to him, but most of it was for sale on consignment.
“Hey amigo, what you need. I got it all: Bulova watch for fifty, lighter for ten, real POLO cologne for thirty, hardcore porn for twenty-five,” etc.
Pete is a skinny black man, who resembles Chris Rock, the real-life comedian/actor who played “Pookie” in the movie, “New Jack City.” Unlike Paul Jones, who was well–groomed and financially secure, Pete hustled because he needed the money like he needed a fix; he’s an addict. He has no prison job; but even if he did, prison jobs only pay ten to forty dollars a month. Due to poverty, most men in prison have to hustle to survive, or go to sleep hungry.
“Nah man, I’m okay, thanks,” I replied in a respectful but uninterested manner.
Hustle Man went on his way to make his sales pitch to someone else. I observed him as he pulled two hardcore magazines, “Hustler” and “Barely Legal,” out of his pants. Porn in prison is like flies on shit, and a crowd began to form to get a peek. Prison officials no longer allow porn to be sent to inmates through mail because of a high court ruling in which CDC argued a good case that porn creates a “hostile work environment” for female guards.
Five years ago, it was common for a female guard to do a cell search and see nothing but porn on the walls and lockers. Today, possession of porn is considered “contraband,” subject to a write-up. I do not understand this CDC position. First, female guards see naked male inmates (frontal nudity) when they shower. They sometimes catch a guy masturbating when they look through a cell door window during count. If anything, the ban on porn gets more men to stare more at female guards. So the ban on porn has led to a thriving black market for Hustle Man, bringing the buyer to the seller.
I watched Pete pull a little baggie out of his waistband, expose it and make a quick sale, a five-dollar bag of tobacco, a mere pinch. In July 2005, CDC banned all smoking in the state prison system. Smoking paraphernalia is contraband, subject to a write-up. The CDC argument was that medical costs were associated with smoking.
A black market now exists. A book of papers, which once cost forty cents, now goes for ten dollars. A can of twelve-dollar Buglar goes for two-hundred dollars. Profiteers hide the tobacco very well, hoarding it until the demand is higher, so they can sell it for more. Desperate men who need a smoke will continue to pay the high price.
As I approached Hustle Man again to get a closer look at the porn, he opened a jacket underneath his outer jacket, exposing more black market goods.
“Amigo, I got new freaky stuff if you swing both ways, the new Rupaul CD…”
I observed the last name on his ID card, which was exposed in his shirt pocket—Jones. I asked, “Do you know Paul Jones?”
“Yeah, he’s my Dad, you know him?
Written by anonymous while doing time in California.