A Geek in Prison — Part 5 — Unit Life & The Shrempresso

June 15, 2018 / by Carly Capko

A Geek in Prison is Bitcoin Pioneer Charlie Shrem’s account of his experience going from being a force for increasing adoption of Bitcoin before the world had heard of cryptocurrency to a 15-month stint in federal prison for selling it to the wrong people. In his excitement to spread the word about Bitcoin, Charlie fell afoul of the law and acknowledges that he committed the crime. He has since gone on to found Crypto.IQ, an educational and investment firm.


Unit Life

Bang bang bang

All day and night, I hear this banging on the unit windows.

Bang bang bang

It’s the inmate signal that a CO is entering the unit. Whether it be 5 a.m. or 5 p.m., there is always an inmate lookout shift, watching all corners of the unit. When a CO is coming up the road and entering the building, everyone knows. It’s not a foolproof system though, and I see inmates being dragged out all the time. There is no point in resisting. Once they know you are a troublemaker, it’s only a matter of time before they catch you.

You have to get lucky every night; they only have to get lucky once.

Thus is Unit Life as I’m starting to learn.

I’ve been in prison a few weeks now, and even though I’m getting into a routine, it’s not any easier. I wake up every morning, go to the bathroom, and brush my teeth. I try to wake up earlier than everyone as I like to move slowly, but this is impossible. Inmates are always awake. There are some inmates who work the midnight shift in the powerhouse or early morning cleaning the warden’s office. Some older folks just like being awake early. Most of the guys who stay up all night, generally the younger ones, sleep until midday. I like hanging around the older guys. I keep my voice low, like having good conversation, and have a long term outlook on life.

Most inmates can be put into two categories: long term and short term. No, I’m not talking about the length of their sentences; I’m talking about their outlook on life. Many inmates care about today and tomorrow. They are going to hustle and make every day their best with no care for tomorrow. They will make trouble, eat what they want, and not give two shits about their fellow human beings. There is no way to reason with these inmates. They do whatever the hell they want to do, and that’s about it. Other inmates care. Meaning they give some level of respect to others. This could be sharing a cookie or something simple like wiping their piss of the toilet seat.

Later that year when I was in solitary, I briefly had a bunk mate who told me he was sent there because he jumped his other bunkie. He had woken to use the bathroom, and his bunkie hadn’t wiped down the seat. You can get stabbed for something like that.

After I do my bathroom thing, I go back to my cube and try not to wake up Omar. Omar works at UNICOR, a.k.a. Prison Industries. This is the highest paying job on the compound, starting at $0.17 an hour. They do everything from breaking down old VCR’s to upholstering furniture. When you walk into a government office, whether it be the post office or federal building, all the furniture and plastic silverware is made by UNICOR. Usually, the inmates who work at UNICOR don’t have outside money coming in. They can earn $100-$300 a month, which goes a long way in the commissary.

It’s almost impossible to open up my locker without it creaking. I grab my coffee cup to make my morning Shrempresso. What is a Shrempresso you ask? From my love of all things coffee, I’ve invented a mixture that made its way around the compound. Over my year in Lewisburg, dozens of inmates drank my Shrempresso

Shrempresso Recipe

Get a 16-oz cup; don’t fill it with water yet!

Add 1 teaspoon each of the following to your cup:

*1. Maxwell House Instant Espresso (Dark Roast if you can find it)

*2. Keefe Colombian Instant Coffee (Not sure if you can buy this outside of a Prison Compound)

*3. Swiss Mix Hot Chocolate

Add hot water and stir!

After I make my Shrempresso, I head into the TV room to watch the news.

The TV room is where you will find hostilities and violence, if any, on the compound. There are actually two TV rooms, both with three TVs hanging from the ceiling. Each TV has an FM frequency under it, and you can tune your mp3 player or radio to listen in. Having a seat is based on seniority. The only way to get a seat is if someone who is leaving gives you theirs. However, if the other inmates don’t think you are worthy, they won’t respect your seat, and someone will likely always be sitting in it. Shimi has been on the compound for three years and lets me sit in his seat when he is not around. The control over which channel and shows are on is based on super seniority, and unless you are living in the unit five plus years, don’t even try to change the channel. If there is a fight, it usually happens outside the TV room because if someone does something in the TV room, we all lose privilege.

Respect the sanctity of the TV room or leave.

I head back to my cube to get dressed and have a chat with Omar. Sometimes we discuss life, politics, religion, or anything over a Hunny Bun. He was raised in a very religious Muslim family and I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish one, so our conversations always lead to religion and Middle Eastern politics. Over the year, Omar and I have solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have figured out a way for Muslims and Jews to live in world peace. All it takes is forcing a Muslim and Jew to live together for a year.

Conversations would usually start by me asking him about something in Islam that I had heard about and didn’t understand, for example his view on homosexuality. He would explain to me that he was raised learning that being gay is a choice and that we have control of our urges. Then he would explain to me that he has many gay friends, and regardless of his beliefs, he does not judge them for it. I would explain the view of homosexuality in the Torah (Old Testament) regards gay sex as something we shouldn’t do; however, over the years, different rabbinical authorities have clarified this based on the community you belong to. We would debate various subjects back and forth, and it would stay amicable. This relationship allowed the Jewish and Muslim communities in prison to share resources like the chapel, kitchen, and each others’ religious ceremonies and restrictions.

For breakfast, I can either make myself some oatmeal in the unit or head to the chow hall. The chow hall is usually corn grits, bran cereal or something resembling oatmeal on a cycle. Sometimes there is a fruit involved and, if we were lucky, maybe a piece of cake.

After this, I call Courtney to say good morning and head over to the computers to check any emails I got overnight. I park myself in the library and read the newspaper or a book until I head to work.

A week ago I got a job in the education department tutoring inmates for the GED, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma. I will discuss that in my next post.