Why do Inmates Get Paid?

In the words of the great poet Puff Daddy, it’s all about the Benjamins. I didn’t share that lyric with you just to prove my amazing knowledge of 90s rap songs, but it’s because today’s blog post is all about money.

When someone goes to prison, it’s easy for someone on the outside to think that they wouldn’t need any money because the state provides them everything. They get a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in, a uniform to wear, three meals a day, and a hot shower…what more could they need?

Believe it or not, when you are in prison, you still need an income to survive. To have any sense of a tiny bit of comfort, to be able to communicate with loved ones on the outside, to be able to keep yourself clean, you have to have a monthly income.

Some inmates are lucky enough to have friends and family members to send them money, but others have to rely on the money they make when they are in prison to take care of themselves. 

This leads us to today’s blog post: why do inmates get paid? 

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • What state property does a prison issue an inmate?
  • What does an inmate need money for?
  • How can you send an inmate money?
  • How does an inmate spend their money?
  • Do inmates get money when they leave prison?

What state property does a prison issue an inmate?

When you go to prison, you are stripped of all their personal possessions. You are also stripped naked and hosed down with water and forced to put a lice treatment on your head before you enter a housing unit for the first time.

Once you are cleaned off, you receive your “state-issued” items. These items differ based on male and female inmates, but there are some common basics. Everyone gets a pillow, blanket, and sheets. The state also issues a towel, a wash cloth, a toothbrush, a bar of soap, and a small bottle of shampoo. 

You also get your clothing in a laundry bag, which consists of three (or more) sets of uniforms, which are usually pants and tops. They could also be jumpsuits depending on the facility. Women get bras, socks, and underwear. Men get t-shirts, underwear, and socks. They are usually poorly made and don’t fit right, and chances are you will get a size that’s way too big.

You are also issued a pair of boots, a coat, and a sock cap. Everything else you must buy from the canteen.

What does an inmate need money for?

Because they issue you an absolute minimum amount of hygiene products, the most important thing an inmate needs money for is toiletries. You need money for a decent bottle of shampoo, some conditioner, a larger bar of soap, toothpaste, and lotion.

In the prison I was in, you could also buy single-blade, anti-shank razors, make-up, and appliances, like a hair dryer and curling iron.

You also need money for paper, pens, stamps, and envelopes so you can write home, and money for phone time so you can call your family. 

The prison canteen also sells electronics to help you pass the time, including TVs, CD players, tablets, and typewriters. Inmate tablets also have the option to buy games, movies, and music.

Prison food is pretty disgusting, so it’s nice to have money to buy food and beverages from the canteen. At the end of my four years in prison, I could have written a prison cookbook based on the recipes I created from the food I bought from the canteen. I can do some incredible things with ramen noodles.

Another nice thing to buy when you are in prison is clothing and tennis shoes. The uniforms are uncomfortable and itchy and the boots are heavy. It’s nice to buy t-shirts, sweatpants, shorts, and tennis shoes so you don’t have to wear your uniform all the time.

To answer today’s question, an inmate gets paid because they need it to survive. Not to mention, many inmates are working full-time manufacturing jobs, in a call center, or with the department of transportation. They are doing regular jobs that a free person can do, but only getting paid a few cents an hour.

How can you send an inmate money?

An inmate can live a relatively comfortable life in prison for as little as $25 a week. However, that income level is the upper class in prison. 

In Missouri, the “state pay” would happen once a month, and those without a high school diploma or GED received $7.50 and those with a diploma or GED received $8.50. Some jobs on camp also came with a small stipend. For example, the cooks in the kitchen would earn $15 a month, and I worked at the canteen and made a whopping $50 a month. 

However, if you owe money for fees or restitution, they will take all of the money out of your account and only leave you with $5 every month. I’m sure the rules on this vary from state to state, but what is a constant among all prisons is that the majority of inmates live on just a few dollars per month.

To help out your loved one who is behind bars, you can send them money with a service like JPay, which is the largest prison money service in the country. They have a website that allows you to send money with a credit or debit card.

Most prisons will also accept money orders for an inmate’s books, but the process is different based on facility.

To find the specific method for sending money to your inmate, click on the facility locator on PrisonInsight, then select the prison your loved one is in. There, you will find details about how to send money to your inmate.

How does an inmate spend their money?

Obviously, an inmate doesn’t get cash in hand. When someone adds money to an inmate’s account, they can check their balance via a kiosk inside the housing unit. Some inmates have the option of checking their account balance on their tablet.

Each week, an inmate is allowed to go, “to the store,” which is the prison canteen. Every housing unit has a specific day to pick up their order, and the inmate can place their order via the kiosk or their tablet.

When the housing unit’s orders are ready, the inmates are either called to the canteen to pick up their order, or it is delivered to them.

Do inmates get money when they leave prison?

When an inmate leaves prison, they get a debit card with the amount of money that is on their books on the day that they are released. That is all of the money that friends and family have sent them which they haven’t spent, their state pay, and all of their unspent earnings from their job. 

Since most people don’t have a large balance on their books, most don’t walk out with much. If an inmate doesn’t have any money, the prison will give them at least one month of state pay (which is usually no more than $20), so they aren’t completely broke when they hit the streets.

Do you think inmates should get paid more? Let us know in the comments below.

Sources:  

Prison Slavery: Inmates are paid cents while manufacturing products sold to government

https://www.newsweek.com/prison-slavery-who-benefits-cheap-inmate-labor-1093729

How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/

About the Author Natalie

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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