Charlie Shrem wouldn't let prison stop him from chatting with his online fans. Even after becoming the first person ever convicted of a Bitcoin-related crime, Shrem continues to cultivate a following among Bitcoin loyalists, some of whom paint him as a sort of martyr for the digital currency.
Since September, Shrem has been answering fans' questions on Bitcoin.com while serving a two-year prison sentence for money laundering associated with Silk Road, an online black market that allowed people to buy drugs and guns. Holding a Reddit-style "ask me anything" session from inside the slammer isn't easy. For one thing, inmates are barred from accessing the Web, according to Shawn Bartlett, a spokesman for the U.S. federal prison system in Lewisburg, Pa., near where Shrem is being held.
While locked up, Shrem found salvation from the isolating environment with help from a proponent of the digital currency known informally as Bitcoin Jesus. Roger Ver, whose strange nickname comes from his proselytizing for the digital currency, knew Shrem through the Bitcoin community. Ver himself is an ex- convict who was sentenced to 10 months in a U.S. prison for selling explosives. He's now the chief executive officer of Bitcoin.com, which hosts an exchange for buying Bitcoin, news about the digital currency, and discussion groups.
The two Bitcoin entrepreneurs began communicating regularly through the prison e-mail system. Ver said he proposed hosting a Q&A with Shrem on his website's message boards. Shrem was into the idea, but because he doesn't have direct Web access, Ver relays the questions through the prison's e-mail network and posts the responses on Shrem's behalf. "The outside world still loves and supports Charlie, and there are many people around the world who want to know how he is doing," Ver said.
Shrem's fans send good wishes and invitations to attend conferences when he's released. The questions often center around what life is like on the inside. Shrem's activity on the forum has been sporadic. Inmates don't have unlimited computer access, and their e-mails are screened. He recalled getting really sick when he first got behind bars but has gotten into a routine. He said he's read 70 books, including works on economics, spy thrillers, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is set in a 1950s Soviet labor camp.
Shrem teaches inmates who are trying to earn a high-school diploma. He also educates them on the virtues of Bitcoin. In one post, Shrem wrote:
"All the inmates know about Bitcoin! I'm even teaching them about Sidechains, Ripple and others so they understand what the industry look like. Many people here even owned Bitcoin before they came in. We have a lot of programmers here, finance guys, doctors, and economists. Just the other day, someone asked me to schedule an hour with him so he can pick my brain. Everyone is very respectful and clean. This is our home for now, and we treat it that way."
Shrem ran a New York Bitcoin exchange called BitInstant and was a founding member of the Bitcoin Foundation, where he used to be vice chairman. Shrem, who didn't respond to a request for comment, started his sentence this spring. "I've learnt that I don't know everything," he wrote. "I was a very arrogant person and let my ego get the best of me. I've learnt how to have patience and slow down my thinking."
Once he gets out, Shrem said he doesn't plan to return to New York. He's considering a move to Austin, Tex., "and eventually out of the country when possible." Ver has long since moved to Japan.