Unless you’ve been to prison yourself, you probably don’t know why inmates would have any use of money. You probably imagine there’s free food (even if the quality is subpar and taste is technically non-existent), free accommodations, and most importantly no bills. That is indeed true, to some extent anyway. When you think about things like that, prison doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad place.
Free visits from family, no worries about a job, or meeting people and trying to impress them, life would be boring but not half bad considering. Still, why is it that inmates need money to survive in prison? What can they possibly use that money for? You can find answers to all your queries below.
How Do Prisoners Keep Money?
Typically, inmates get a prison account which is essentially similar to a bank account. Money transferred to the prisoners by family or friends is stored in their bank accounts. Also, their wages and other savings are stored in their inmate accounts.
For low to medium security prisoners, there is a maximum transfer limit of 300 dollars per month.
High-security prisoners allow a maximum transfer of 200 dollars per month.
Also known as Inmate Trust Fund, the accounts can be withdrawn when a prisoner leaves the jail upon the termination of their incarceration. If any accounts are unclaimed, former inmates can access them again and withdraw everything. Accounts that are left unclaimed for too long are closed and any funds contained in them are taken over by the State Correctional Facility.
Why Do Inmates Need Money?
While on the surface prisoners may be supplied with all basic needs and commodities, in reality, it is rarely possible to be satisfied with just that much. For prisoners to stay healthy, they must buy extra food, separate from that which is provided by the prison.
When it comes to extra portions of food, inmates can either pay the kitchen staff or they can buy snacks from the commissary. Other than the food, if they need personal hygiene products, they will need to buy those from the commissary as well.
Sending letters to the family isn’t so easy either. Paper, pen, stamps, etc. all need to be bought before a prisoner can write back home.
Some prisons impose taxes on phone calls too. Similarly, there are medical charges imposed by some prisons. So if you need any sort of medication, you will need to pay the bills for the medicine.
The Commissary is one of the basic facilities provided in the prison that require inmates to use money. A prison commissary, also called a canteen, is a store within a correctional facility, from which prisoners may purchase products such as hygiene items, snacks, writing instruments, etc.
The United States Department of Justice authorized and established a commissary at each federal institution in 1930 and ever since it has been a part of the prison systems.
Some prison commissaries are operated by government employees or inmates, while others are completely privatized. Prison commissaries commonly set high price markups, although some prison systems set maximum markups; for example, the Delaware Department of Correction has a 20% maximum markup.
Prison commissary is a privilege provided to the inmates and it can be taken away for infractions.
How Does The Prison Commissary System Work?
Prisoners are not allowed to carry money with them. If they are earning wages by working a job in prison or if their family sends them funds, it goes into their inmate trust fund. Most inmates call this their “commissary money.”
Inmates usually look forward to commissary day, which is typically once every two weeks.
Although prisoners call it, “going to the store,” what it entails is that they take a list of items they wish to buy and stand in line at the commissary window. When their commissary order is filled, they walk away with a bag full of precious commodities such as coffee, instant soup, snacks, canned food, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, writing material, or as much as their funds allow them to buy.
With approval from the facility, prisoners can also buy things like hot pots, clocks, fans, typewriters, shoes, undergarments, and basic over-the-counter medications.
Popular items at the Commissary
Spices, including the ones packaged with instant ramen noodles, have become a popular item due to the often bland nature of prison food.
As prison budgets are cut in the US, ramen has become a popular commodity to supplement food needs along with various other canned foods. Packets of mackerel are one such item. Inmates often use these ingredients to create meals, colloquially called "spreads".
In both the U.S. and U.K., electronic cigarettes are available in a small number of jails.
In most prisons, the facility provides a telephone line of their own. This telephone line can sometimes be local as well. Reportedly, phone calls cost quite a bit. When an offender is incarcerated, they are required to establish a list of visitors, usually 20 in total. Though it is not necessary to be on the visitor’s list in some prisons, usually prisons only allow calls to verified individuals.
If an inmate doesn’t have a balance in their Inmate Trust Fund, they won’t be able to make calls. That is why it is recommended that families pay for the calls they make. They can contact the prison about their telephone package and get one for a specific inmate.
A phone account is kept separate from an inmate account. The phone account is used solely for phone calls.
For inmates who do not have any means to buy from the commissary, an alternative is the barter system. Although it is illegal, inmates can do chores for other inmates to earn coffee, soup, snacks, etc. from them. In some prisons, dope and alcohol are sold illegally by some inmates and sometimes it is bartered in exchange for commissary items.
Items Used as Currency
Certain items tend to be used as currency by prisoners. Cigarettes were a classic medium of exchange once, but in the wake of prison tobacco bans, various other prison commissary items have taken over as the new currency. These include postage stamps and instant ramen noodles. Ramen is increasingly popular as a medium of exchange in prison due to its versatility as a food and its relative abundance. In some prisons, packets of mackerel fish or "macks" have also taken precedence as a currency, as it is priced closely with one USD, and maintains stability by being rarely consumed.
How Much Is Prison Wage?
The average prison wage in the United States maxes out at 52 cents per hour, according to a new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) analysis, and many people make pennies per hour. That means that necessities, like a $3 bar of soap, can take days of work to afford. And that is, in case you get paid at all. In at least six states namely, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, most prisoners are not paid for their labor whatsoever.
To make up for their paltry wages, inmates often take part in a thriving underground economy of side hustles, dealing dope, bartering stamps or commissary items for everything from hand-drawn cards to makeshift home cooking methods and dishes to legal help.
Read more related articles:
- Ferguson Unit: Visiting Information, History of This Facility, Inmates Phone, Mail, And FAQ About This Prison
- Active Inmates List In Hancock County Jail & Everything You Need To Know About This Facility
- Pickaway County Active Inmates: How to search for Active Inmates of Pickaway County Prison
- Trumbull County Jail: Brief Overview Visiting Hours, Inmate Phones, And Sherif's Location
- Craighead County Detention Center: Sherif's Office and How to Contact Inmates?
- Byrd Unit Texas: Everything You Need To Know About This Facility