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As Liza Minelli told us in Cabaret, money makes the world go round. And, even though that movie reference tells you way too much about my age and geeky interests, it is a universal truth, both in the free world and inside of a prison.
Money is everything in prison. It can transform your experience from total pain and suffering to less pain and suffering, and that is the best possible scenario when you are behind bars. When you enter a prison, you are stripped of all your possessions, then they issue you your basic clothing, hygiene items, a pillow, and blanket. That’s it. You can literally fit everything you have inside a laundry bag.
If you want anything else besides your basic, prison-issued items, you have to buy it. Most prison jobs pay about ten cents an hour, and if you owe money for past intervention fees, court costs, restitution, or victim’s compensation, the prison will take a percentage of your pay out every month, which means that you are left with about five dollars to spend at the commissary.
If you do not have anyone from the outside sending you money, your prison experience is even more of a nightmare. You will be forced to always eat at the chow hall, your clothes will be ill-fitting and uncomfortable, you will never be able to make phone calls or write home, and you will never get clean.
So, today, let’s talk about money, and more specifically why does an inmate need money when they are locked up?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
Every prison has a commissary (AKA canteen or store) where you can buy everything from food and beverages to electronics. The prices are similar to airport prices, which means they have an insane mark-up, but I would pay 35 cents all day long for a package of ramen noodles (which is about three times the cost at the grocery store) if that means I don’t have to eat Poultry A La King at the chow hall.
Each prison has different kinds of food available at their commissary, but more often than not, they will offer things like ramen noodles, bags of chips, bags of chicken and tuna, pop tarts, oatmeal, crackers, blocks of cheese, beans, and tortilla shells.
At the prison I attended, we had access to microwaves, so they did have some items that you would need to cook first. However, for prisons that do not have that option, the commissary food items are things you don’t have to cook.
The commissary also offers beverages like coffee, soda, and juice, and they also sell stamps, stationery, pencils, pens, and notebooks. Hygiene items are a big seller because this is the only way inmates have access to shampoo and conditioner, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, lotion, and basic makeup items. We were also able to buy small anti-shank razors, curling irons, and hair dryers.
Other items available include clothing like t-shirts, socks, underwear, sweatpants, and tennis shoes.You are also able to buy electronics like TVs and CD players.
We also had weekly fundraisers from different organizations, like the NAACP and Restorative Justice, where we could buy chips, candy, sandwiches, and frozen vegetables. Every month, we had the option of buying things from mail order catalogues like bras, craft supplies, and CDs.
I can’t put into words how amazing it was the first time I bought a bra from the Eastbay catalog. After months of wearing prison-issued bras, it was absolute heaven to wear something that fit and was comfortable.
You can also use the money you have on your books to make phone calls, which is incredibly important when you are locked up.
Some prisons are now making tablets available to inmates, and after buying the tablet, they can make phone calls, download games, movies, and music. But of course, all of that costs money.
Each state prison has their own way of sending money to an inmate, but they almost always have a mail option and an online option. Some prisons allow you to send a check or money order directly to the inmate, while others have a lock box that you must use for snail mail.
The most popular and easiest way to send money to an inmate is online using services like JPAY, Touch Pay, and Western Union. Each state and facility uses different services, so be sure to look up the specific facility that your loved one is incarcerated in on Prison Insight to get the step-by-step details on how to send money.
When it comes to inmates in federal prison, the options are the same no matter which facility your loved one is in. The options are through the US postal service, Money Gram, or Western Union. To get a full breakdown on how to send money, click here or go to the specific facility page on Prison Insight.
There is an exception when it comes to inmates incarcerated in private prisons. They have their own way for you to send money to an inmate, so be sure to click on the specific facility page to get those details.
If you have money on your books when you leave prison, the prison will load that money onto a debit card that they will give you when you leave the facility. If you don’t have anyone sending you money, then the prison usually gives you anywhere between $5 and $50 when you leave, and that’s it.
If an inmate doesn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to help them when they are released, they only have that small amount of money to spend and that can lead to a lot of problems really fast.
Yes, money is very important in prison, but a little can go a long way. Inmates can be fairly comfortable if they have $100 a month to spend, and every dollar helps. So, if you have a friend or loved one who is currently incarcerated, send them a few dollars if you have some to spare. It will absolutely brighten their day and change their world. It’s not just about being able to buy things, it’s also about being able to write letters and call home, which are two things that can make an inmate’s time behind bars much more tolerable.
Have you ever sent money to an inmate? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Sending Money https://www.bop.gov/inmates/communications.jsp
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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