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.
March 30, 2015
Cold day. I wore a pair of bad jeans and a shirt that I didn’t care about. Courtney and the family dropped me off in the parking lot, and we all walked in together. It was a small room, and I said to the correctional officer “My name is Charlie Shrem, and I’m here to self-surrender.” He told me to say goodbye to my family and walk through the door on my right. I turned to Courtney and gave her a big hug and said,
“It’s going to go fast, I promise. I will be out before you know it and we have a visit in a few weeks. Stay strong my love, I love you.”
I walked through the door, and they brought me to a holding cell and asked me to strip naked. They took my clothes and told me they could mail it home. I told them not to waste their time and to throw the clothes in the trash. After an hour or so of waiting, they did a full body search and issued me a temporary jumpsuit. I did all my paperwork intake. The CO was friendly, and since this was routine for him, I figured if I make his life as easy as possible he would do the same for me. This theory was echoed through my whole prison stay. I realized if I gave the CO’s even a little respect, it would go a long way. He did my intake, and next, I went to medical where they checked for diseases that could endanger the general population.
After a few hours of waiting, paperwork, and more waiting, I was released into the population, and they told me to take a seat on the bench. This bench is known as the freshie bench. Everyone new to the prison sits on this bench which is located between the computer area, chow hall, and library. You are in full view for the inmates to size you up.
One inmate walked up to me, sat down on the bench, and looked at me for a minute.
He said, “transfer or self surrender?”
I replied, “self-surrender.”
Most of the things you think you know about prison are either false or exaggerated. When making a first impression, the key is to talk as if you’re not scared, but don’t give up too much information and be over friendly. He introduced himself as “Belkin” and shook my hand.
Belkin said to me:
“I’m going to give you a little tip: if you see candy on your pillow tonight. Do not eat it.”
I looked at him, and there was fear in my eyes. He stared at me for a minute and said, “I’m messing with you dude, there is no violence here, everyone is cool. Relax.”
Turns out he was from New York City. We talked about that for a few minutes before he had to go to work. Over the next few months, we would go from being good friends, to barely speaking and back to friends. I will talk about that later.
Before I went in, through my lawyer, I was able to be introduced to a few guys in Lewisburg in advance. While sitting on the bench waiting to be issued clothes, sheets, and my bed assignment a few more guys walked up and introduced themselves. One was a former personal injury lawyer who ended up being one of my best friends later on. The others were either financial software programmers, ex-lawyers, politicians, drug dealers, drug users, and everyone in between. Some had known of me already as “The Bitcoin Guy” and started asking me questions. I knew this wasn’t the right time to get into it, and also, I didn’t want people getting the wrong first impression of me coming off conceited, so I humbly tried to brush off the questions for now. They all had to go to work and said they would catch up with me later.
My computer and phone access had not been set up yet, so I couldn’t call Courtney and tell her I was OK. This was really difficult to do. Throughout the day I kept checking the computer to see if the funds she added through Western Union were available yet.
After about four hours sitting on the bench, I was issued my clothes and sheets. I was also assigned to Unit 1, Range 3, Cube 48. I picked up my stuff and walked out of the administration building.
Overshadowing the camp compound was a maximum security prison surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. Every day this would serve as a reminder that if you misbehaved, that was where you were going.
I walked into the unit and Range 3 was one of 4 long hallways with cinder block cubes. Each cube had a bunk bed, a desk, and lockers. The walls were about 6 feet high, so if you sat on the top bunk, you could see all the way down the range. There was absolutely no physical privacy. Later I would learn that you had to create mental privacy and respect other people’s space.
I walked into my cube and saw my bunkie sitting on his bed. I said: “Hey, I’m Charlie. I’m clean and won’t get in your way”
He smiled, introduced himself as “Omar” and showed me around the cube. The tone was friendly but assertive. The only thing we own in prison is our identity number. Everything else is a privilege. We have to respect ourselves and others in here. Take a shower every day, do laundry, stay clean, and in physical shape. More importantly, stay in mental shape. Stay strong, and remember that you can lose privileges, but they can’t take your time. Every day in here you are credited with one day served, which can’t be taken from you. What you do with that time is up to you. Some people stress eat, sit around, watch TV, and let the time do them. Others get themselves in mental and physical shape and do their time. I decided right there and then I was going to use my year wisely and take myself out of my comfort zone because it was the only way I would get out of here a better person.
We spent the next few hours talking and getting to know each other. Omar was the Muslim Imam of the compound, and I was hesitant at first to tell him I was raised an Orthodox Jew. After speaking for a few hours, I realized he was a tolerant and respectful man, so I told him that I was raised in a religious Jewish family in Brooklyn. Many of my friends in college were Muslim and being of Syrian descent I knew more than most about Islam and spoke basic Arabic. He was excited about this, and over the next few months, provided us with fantastic material to debate each other on all sorts of topics and issues.
I kept checking my account balance and, finally, my phone had credit. We only get 300 minutes a month of phone time. In a 30-day month, that’s 10 minutes a day total. I immediately called Courtney, and she was tearful but sounded strong. She said it’s been a hard day, but she was worried about my safety. I told her about the bench, about Omar, and that everyone was cool. It’s nonviolent, and I was going to be OK. The truth was I was scared too, but the first day was better than I expected, and that made her feel better. I told her I was going to sleep, I loved her, and I would call her first thing in the morning.
Omar told me the range gets very loud after the 10 pm standing count, so if I wanted to get sleep I would do it immediately after the count. He gave me a pair of earplugs, and as soon as count was over, I passed out.
The next day, I would meet my counselor, learn how to shower, get myself a job, and meet the guys in my ‘car’ — the crew I would hang out with.