At, I suspect, every single correctional facility in the U.S., a drug network something like the one I’m about to outline operates and prospers. Take it from me—I was recently released from federal prison after spending 21 years of my life inside.
While you may read about the drug smuggling ventures that are busted, you’re unlikely to hear so often about the operations that are successful. To help explain one of these systems, I got in touch with a man I’ll call “Divine.” He’s a black, 50-something, very suave type of hustler, clean cut and ripped up from working out. A native New Yorker, his prowess as a drug dealer is even celebrated in hip-hop’s lyrical lore. He is now doing life in the feds. But his occupation in prison brings him money and power, and the all-important prestige of being The Man. He agreed to anonymously break down how it all works for Substance.com.
“I have been getting drugs into the BOP [federal Bureau of Prisons] since the '80s,” Divine tells me. A career criminal, he has already done several bids in the feds and has been doing time since he was in his early 20s.
Every time he got out, he would go right back to his trade on the streets of New York. Eventually he would get violated or catch a new case, leading him to continue his vocation in prison, where he has become a top-class operator: He has never once been caught for his illicit activities inside the belly of the beast.
Sure, he’s been under investigation, but he’s always been able to withstand the pressure. If he gets thrown in the hole, shipped out to another prison, or harassed, he just rides it out, acts like he’s doing nothing wrong, and starts again.
“Whenever I hit a compound, the first thing I do is see who has what going on,” Divine says. “If there is an established structure, I just tap into it. If not, I create my own from the ground up. It’s not that hard.”
Illegal drugs are the number one contraband item and commodity in every correctional facility. Dudes in prison, where isolation, boredom, and stress are rife, will sell their souls to feed their addictions, and men like Divine play on that hunger.
Finding mules to bring the drugs in is the first order of business.
“It’s usually pretty easy,” Divine says. “I just look for some white boy that gets a lots of visits. Preferably one with a girl and some kids that come to see him every weekend. Finding someone who is out on the dance floor regularly and who has a lot of activity going on around him when he is out there is the best route.”
“To be honest, and I am not proud to say this,” he continues, “kids are the best cover when you are swallowing balloons. The kids distract the guards because they are so hyper and that allows the dude’s baby mama to pass him the balloons to swallow undetected.” The balloons can be passed mouth-to-mouth in a kiss or put into food items like sandwiches or chip bags.
An elaborate system has to be put in place to even get to this point, though. As soon as Divine finds a suitable candidate to mule the drugs in, he has to put everything to work. That is where his expertise comes in, as well as his reputation: Divine is known as a man that makes things happen when it comes to getting drugs into prison—even though he never touches the drugs himself.
“As soon as I find someone to bring the drugs in I make a call to an old friend [on the street] and let them know it’s going down,” Divine says. He relays the information to his friend about when the visit is taking place, the address to send the prepackaged drugs to, and where to wire the money to pay the mule’s family. This is all done outside the prison and put into action with one phone call.
Since the authorities are probably listening in (unless he happens to have access to a smuggled cell), the information has to be relayed in code. “I got everything set up with my people on the outside already,” says Divine. “They know when I call and say certain words or phrases that I am setting up a move. I have been doing this so long that it’s like clockwork.”
Once the visit date is set, Divine’s people in New York procure the drugs—be it heroin, weed, or Oxys—package them up into balloons and mail them to the visitor who will bring them in to their loved one. The benefits for the mule are money for his family and free drugs for himself.
Once the drugs are finally in the institution, the real action starts. “When I know the move is about to happen I get some of my homeboys to set themselves up to sell the packets,” Divine says. Others are recruited to collect the drugs from the mule, stash them, and package them prior to sale. Again, Divine himself never touches the drugs.
He likes to keep it a New York thing. He will use outside guys if he has to but prefers to employ his own people. “New York dudes just know how to do it better,” he claims. “And they know how to keep their mouths shut when the shit goes down.”
For collection and security purposes, Divine will always also recruit a couple of enforcers—known thugs in the prison who everyone is afraid of, “vicious dudes who see everything in black-and-white,” as he describes them. “It’s easy to find them. They are looking for excuses to smash people and I give them the justification that they need to follow their base impulses.” His enforcers will go to lengths to look out for Divine because he is in essence feeding them by making the moves happen. If someone doesn’t pay or there is a problem, he sticks his thugs on them and they mete out the beat-downs.
As the drugs are sold, payments are collected—in many different forms. A lot of smaller transactions are completed using commissary. This means that Divine will give someone a list of items to buy on the one day a week they can go to the prison store. They’ll buy shoes, sweats, shorts, food, or hygiene items using the money in their prison account and bring them to him or his people in a laundry bag. Stamps are another common method of payment, because they’re small but have significant value when stacked up.
Then there are street-to-street transactions. This is when you direct one of your family members or friends on the street to send money to an address supplied by the person you owe. Let’s say you owe me $800; I can give you my girl’s address and you call your people and tell them to send or wire $800 to my girl. Even though the drug deals take place in prison, most of the money changes hands on the outside, whether to enrich the dealer’s family members, pay off his associates, or build a pile ready for the dealer when he comes out.
You can also send or wire money out to a person directly from your prison account. A lot of people in prison have tens of thousands on these accounts. Anything over $500 is supposed to be flagged and investigated, but you can just say you’re sending it out for your children or something.
"I got everything set up with my people on the outside already. They know when I call and say certain words or phrases that I am setting up a move. I have been doing this so long that it’s like clockwork."
Whatever form the payments take, due to the rules of supply and demand in a restricted environment, Divine makes a killing.
“Off of one gram of heroin, which costs $75-100 on the street, I can get back $1,200,” he tells me. “One gram breaks down into 12 $100 pieces. That is what I get back. My guys handle all the commissary and stamps and do send-outs or street-to-street transactions to my people on the streets. That is how I get paid.”
Everyone who works on the move is compensated, whether with money, drugs, commissary, stamps, or just prestige. “Some guys want to be involved for money, some for the drugs, but some just want to be down and associated with me,” Divine says.
“When you have a name and you are established and dudes know who you are, it is easy to get people to do your bidding. I am not a bad guy, a tyrant, or even the toughest dude around, but I am fair and firm. If you perform for me, I make sure you get paid. If you got drugs coming, then you got drugs coming. Everybody gets paid when I do a move. It just works out better that way and enables me to do what I do.”
Anyone can get busted. Anyone can get sloppy or complacent. In the drug business in prison, you always have to be on your toes and figuring out every eventuality—because while you are thinking about your money and making plans with it, someone else is thinking about your money and making plans with it also. Someone can always snitch.
But Divine keeps himself clean. He has people to handle both the drugs and the proceeds. He has guys around him to protect him from prison rivals, and a diplomatic persona that keeps him out of trouble. It’s almost impossible to obtain hard evidence to connect him with the drugs, and if the authorities know who he is, it’s only through hearsay.
Sure, he’s been under investigation, but he’s always been able to withstand the pressure. If he gets thrown in the hole, shipped out to another prison, or harassed, he just rides it out, acts like he’s doing nothing wrong, and starts again. Even if he did get caught, he would just be facing a little time—and he already has life.
Everyone in Divine’s system has an interest in preserving it—the addicts on the compound, the sellers, the packagers and stash handlers, the mules, the enforcers, and especially Divine, who runs the whole operation and pockets the majority of the profits. It’s all driven by the cunning and personality of one man. Perhaps the buzz Divine gets from being that man is one way of compensating himself for having to spend his life behind bars. And men like Divine exist in almost every prison yard.