Why you should care

Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

John Broman
Federal Prisoner, United States Penitentiary, Hazelton, West Virginia

Well, every day in prison is like the movie Groundhog Day. Things might vary slightly from one day to the next, but I’m always going to wake up to a steel door being unlocked — and slamming shut at the end of each day. It’s my entrance to the netherworld of corruption and violence in which I exist.

I’m doing an 18-year sentence for a bank robbery charge out of Pittsburgh. As a white, middle-class, dreadlocked hippie, prison life was a bit of culture shock for me at first. But after 13 years, I’ve found everyone in here has a hustle. To make extra money. To survive. Whether it’s doing laundry or fixing radios or selling drugs, everyone has their hand in the underground prison economy.

My hustle is booking gambling tickets. I’ve made bookoo stamps. For the uninitiated, stamps is money in here. Football season has been in full swing — everyone gambles on the NFL. I made a killing on the bowl games, and now things are heating up as convicts scramble to get their bets in for the playoffs. And then we’ve got the Super Bowl.

My weekends are filled with hunting down bets and making sure they get to the bookie in time. Every morning, I scan the previous night’s tickets for hits and make arrangements to get stamps from the bookie to cover the winners. It’s a never-ending grind, but I enjoy it. It helps me do my time. Plus, I love to watch the games. It may just be on TV, but it gets as loud and hectic as any stadium in here.

As the ticket man, there’s a lot of BS I have to deal with. Dudes in here aren’t above running scams and trying to say they made this bet or took these points. That’s why I write everything down and have multiple copies in case of a shakedown. Because when the cops stumble upon what they call “gambling paraphernalia,” they will confiscate it in a heartbeat.

By lunchtime the winners are paid. I count out the stamps for payments and pass them out along with new tickets. Everything gets sent through a middleman I trust. Sometimes I use two or three guys to help me. It depends on how heavy the action is. But with the Super Bowl on the horizon the betting can get chaotic. Every inmate is trying to get in on it. They all want to make that once-in-a lifetime score and come up.

On game day, all the sports fans and gamblers are together, glued to ESPN, getting their bets ready. They do their own commentary, like they are the sportscasters, comparing notes, giving out their locks. Most of these dudes don’t realize that gambling is a losing proposition. But in the boring and monotonous world of prison you need a little excitement. Some guys might hit every now and then — I like to to see the excitement in the convict’s faces when they do. The majority of the time, though, their money is going straight in the bookies’ pockets. It’s a certified pipe dream.

As a runner, I get to put in my own bets for free. And when I win, it’s like heaven in this hellhole — if only for a moment.

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OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.