Money On My Books

During this quarantine, I’ve stumbled across a few television shows that weren’t on my radar previously. The one I find myself watching the most is “Hard Time”. It’s about maximum security prisons in South Georgia, and the daily interactions of prisoners and employees. Each episode highlights two inmates and explains how they ended up in prison, but also how they learn to pass the hard time they are now faced with. This includes conflict resolution, with most conflict being a result of either gangs, general disrespect, or commissary.

Commissary is a general store where inmates can buy food, snacks, candies, soaps, and anything else that the guards don’t view as contraband. These items are bought either by working prison jobs to earn money or with money that is given to inmates from friends and family on the outside. Commissary is also a privilege and is one of the first things that is revoked following bad behavior. Because commissary is only available to inmates who both follow the rules and are lucky enough to have access to money, it creates a system of Haves and Have Nots, which leads to conflict behind bars amongst inmates.

Having a lot of commissary is seen as a status symbol, but it also makes inmates a target. They could be subject to intimidation, scams, manipulation, or physical violence. Those that don’t have access to it try to gain these cookies, cakes and treats by any means necessary. I wondered why prisons would even offer commissary since it leads to so many problems, but then I realized it also led to a few very important solutions

Commissary is a tool used to reward good behavior. Alternatively, when violence does eventually occur, it gives the employees an excuse to tighten the restrictions on the prisoners and enhance disciplinary measures. It also creates a system where inmates are fighting each other and not the guards. Rather than unifying and attempting to overtake the prison guards, the prisoners squabble over extra packets of Ramen.

I think there are similarities between how the institutions use commissary to control the inmates with how society keeps citizens divided in mini groups. Whether the divisions are socioeconomic in nature, or the result of identity politics, the goal is to make people think they have less in common with their neighbors than they actually do. As long as there are Haves and Have Nots in the world, there are limits to what we can truly accomplish as people.
Political tribalism has reached a new peak, writes Amy Chua in her new book, and it leaves the US in a new perilous situation

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Everybody Thinks They’re
Both the person making $22,000 and the person making $200,000.



Author of The Powers That Be

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