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Earning money is just as important for an inmate in prison as it is for someone in the free world. In addition to “three hots and a cot,” the state provides an inmate with an absolute minimum number of supplies – a few items of clothing, a sheet and towel, and hygiene items. Other than that, an inmate has to rely on their own income to get the items they need to survive.
Prison jobs pay pennies an hour, so most inmates rely on family and friends on the outside to send them money. If an inmate doesn’t have anyone to help, they have to rely on their own smarts, talent, and strengths to hustle for their survival.
Prisons are their own little communities with a special economy among the inmates. Instead of paper dollar bills, currency in prison comes in the form of canteen items. In my experience, stamps and ramen noodles (aka “soups”) take the place of money inside the prison setting.
Just like on the outside, inmates inside of a prison have their own income brackets and socioeconomic status. Some inmates come from families or situations that provide them with endless money on their books. Each week on store day, these inmates – or the “wealthy class” – spend the maximum amount allowed.
They have all of the electronics in their bunk, they also buy tickets for fundraisers, have multiple items of clothing and good tennis shoes, and they never have to go to chow hall because they always make their own food in their room.
The middle class of prison inmates receive some money from friends and family on occasion. They usually spend a few dollars at the store every week, and they may have a TV or a CD player to pass the time. They will also have a few extra t-shirts and a pair of tennis shoes.
The prison poor are the ones who receive no money from anyone on the outside. They live on their prison job income, which usually amounts to approximately 20 bucks a month. These inmates have to have a “side hustle” to earn money and survive. A side hustle can be anything from making hooch to doing an inmate’s laundry or cleaning their dishes.
I wanted to explain what a prison economy was like to help readers better understand the answer to today’s topic. I asked my friend Mistie Vance – who is currently serving her sentence at Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe, Missouri – about it, and I am going to share her answer below. So let’s get to today’s topic: how can you earn money in prison?
In this blog post, Mistie will cover the following topics:
Prison is definitely one of the most humbling experiences of a person’s life – one where you fully come to realize just how powerless you truly are. Opportunities to earn money in prison are as limited as everything else in the institutional setting. And for certain individuals, it isn’t an option at all. It is a situation where one must learn to live by a different standard than they were probably used to before becoming incarcerated.
Prison, just like anything else in life, is an experience unique to the individual. For those with understanding and supportive families, earning money isn’t necessary because of how well they are provided for by their loved ones on the outside.
Many inmates receive regular sums of money each week or month from family members or friends to be able to buy the things they want and need from the prison canteen. In some situations, this can be a good thing, especially if the person’s family is supportive in other ways as well, such as making sure their loved one is supported emotionally and encouraging positive changes in their loved ones life.
There is no greater motivation for change than to know that someone you love is proud of you and believes in you. By the same token, I have seen many situations where families financially supporting their loved ones was detrimental and not a catalyst for positive change.
Some individuals are so caught up in their own selfish desires that they don’t care what their families have to do without as long as they send them money. Some inmates pressure and bully their families over the phone until they relent and send money, using threats and coercion to get what they want. It can be a very sad situation.
Another way that inmates get financial support from the outside is through what they call “tricks.” These are men or women who send money to prisoners in trade for a relationship of some kind, usually sexual in nature.
Having been incarcerated in a women’s institution for over ten years now, I have seen hundreds of these types of relationships. Many men specifically reach out to women they find on D.O.C. websites for the sole purpose of initiating a sexual or emotional relationship, sending money and expecting letters and phone calls in return.
Sometimes tricks are men the women knew before becoming incarcerated, and the women will fake a romantic interest in order to be supported financially. Sometimes, they even promise to home plan for the individual upon their release from prison.
Unfortunately, trickery of any kind is dishonest and doesn’t support a person’s positive growth, making the prison experience a waste. After all, until our thought process changes, our lifestyle will remain the same in or out of prison.
All inmates at a correctional facility receive a small amount of money each month. For inmates who owe money on their books, this amount is five dollars. For individuals with a high school diploma or G.E.D. who don’t owe money the amount is $8.50. For those who don’t owe money but don’t have an education, the monthly amount received is $7.50.
This is money that is received every month and can be used to purchase phone time, media purchases, or items from the offender canteen. For most inmates without any other income, this money is usually used to buy hygiene items, as they aren’t provided by the facility unless you are considered indigent and only receive the $5.00 stipend each month.
There are certain jobs in the facilities that have pay slots, but they are only available to offenders who have their education. If a person owes money on their books, their earnings will automatically go toward their outstanding debts.
Most pay slots in prison are minimal, usually between $15 and $30 per month, except for premium pay slots which are in short supply. For inmates who are able to acquire a premium pay position, they are able to make between $50 and $120 per month as wages for factory work in the facility.
Obviously, it isn’t anywhere near the amount one would make for doing the same job on the outside, but considering all our expenses are paid in here it’s not a bad deal.
I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am in here. No matter if I can go to the store once a week or once a month. No matter if I have $5 or $50. I believe that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.
Since I don’t have a relationship with my family – and I didn’t have friends when I got locked up – I have been fortunate enough to see how God always makes a way for me to have the things I need. And quite often, the things I want.
I made the decision early on not to pretend to like someone for money, or try to get money in a way that was dishonest or would hurt others. I have done enough hurting people with the life I lived as a drug addict before getting locked up.
Part of trusting God has been learning to give of myself to others expecting nothing in return, and in doing so, I have found myself more blessed than ever before. You truly do reap what you sow, whether it be positive or negative.
Living your best life, means living your blessed life!
One of the best things about the prison experience, whether you have an income or not, is learning that true happiness isn’t about what you have, it’s about what you give away. In helping others you’ll find that the person who gains the most is you!
When you share your wisdom, your time…or even your coffee…when you lend a helping hand, a listening ear, or even just a simple smile, the life you end up changing, just might be your own.
What would your side hustle be if you only received $5 per month? Let us know in the comments below.
Inmate essay from Mistie Vance, Chillicothe Correctional Center
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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