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Thoughts on “closed” economic systems
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 09/15/2008

Regular Corrections.com columnist Joe Bouchard is a librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for “The Corrections Professional” and an instructor of Corrections and Psychology for Gogebic Community College.

How much will they raise fuel prices this weekend?

Should I forego the designer coffee this morning?

How much will a gallon of milk cost me this week?

We all ask ourselves these and other similar questions. No one is immune from thinking about the cost of things. Lately, prices of ordinary items weigh heavily on our minds. Inevitably, we cannot escape the forces of money matters.

Economics, the study of the systems of goods exchange, is quite a large and diverse area of interest. It is always interesting to compare how larger economies differ from smaller, somewhat closed systems. One discovers that not all laws for larger structures will always fit neatly over smaller entities.

For the purpose of this essay, let us focus on the area of illicit exchange. Let’s think of any correctional facility as a (nearly) closed economy. Imagine how different this is compared to how goods are exchanged in free society.

So, put away your notions of market reform, leading indices, and speculation. Think not of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, nor of Marxist market theories, nor of Keynesian economics. This is a truly a different world. Here are some economic aspects of this world.

“Closed” is not truly closed. As much as staff may try to make it so, correctional facilities are not always impervious to contraband from the outside. There are a variety of ways that wares slide by security.

Of course, the methods employed range from basic to highly imaginative. Those who facilitate this can be duped or coerced parties on the outside. They may also be willing participants.

The entrepreneur is king. Those who take the chance of moving and selling forbidden goods will likely reap the rewards.

Even with possible sanctions for trading contraband, commerce will proceed. Regardless of consequences, many would-be venders will risk them to earn power and wealth. The seller is in an enviable position in this market.

There are short and long term success stories. Some will sell at high prices and show their newly acquired wealth in an opulent manner. Others are more conservative and look to build an economic empire for the long term. Long term entrepreneurs tend to mask enterprise from staff more effectively. (Bouchard, Joseph. Wake up and smell the contraband: A Guide to Improving Prison Safety. (2nd edition) Horsham, PA: LRP Publications, 2005. Chapter 3, “The economics of contraband”)

Disruptions in a closed system have a great impact. Any change, such as a new infusion of available prison-made alcohol is like heaving a large stone into a small placid pond. And similar big ripples can occur when a gambling enterprise is disbanded or forced to close.

Safety nets are rare. Although shrewd investors will diversify and conceal traffic, there is no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. There is no insurance. The trader inside is subject to many disruptions of trade and income with no guarantee of recovery.

Before we delve into some shared characteristics of economic activities inside facilities, it is important to understand why we ponder them at all. Cause and effect are easier to trace in such circumstances.

The importance of any entrepreneur and each transaction has greater consequences inside than in the outside world. Much of these factors lead to the general tension level inside the walls.

Since facility safety hinges on the results of these exchanges, it behooves staff to understand and predict the nuances of the economy.

Staff should know the patterns. This means they should comprehend what sells, what is easily traded, and when optimal buying times occur. Seeing patterns and reading them well will enable staff to know the players. This is crucial in tracking trade.

Understand prosopography also is important. Staff should know the association of different venders. Compiling a list of the players is fundamental. But knowing exactly how the entrepreneurs interact and coexist often uncovers valuable information.

Uncovering a vender’s backup systems is key too. This is done through simple communication.

Safety is enhanced by discovering the identities of the outside suppliers. This is often accomplished by mail room staff and by those who monitor telephone calls.

Realism is an important strategy in the campaign against illicit commerce. Staff must realize that the campaign never ends. Rather than ignore future trading, corrections professionals must assess the demand and react to inmate economic trends.

Battling the forces of illicit activities inside is a foundation concept for facility safety. And while corrections professionals cannot necessarily control the price of gasoline, their vigilance over the inside economy will certainly support safety for all.

These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, a librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections. These are not necessarily the opinions of the Department. The MIDOC is not responsible for the content or its accuracy.

Other articles by Bouchard:

Busting through the sphere of negativity

Integrity pie



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