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How Much Can A Prisoner Spend Each Week: An In-Depth Look

Prisoners in the United States are allowed to purchase approved items while incarcerated, but their spending is strictly limited. This article will examine prisoner spending limits in detail, looking at the reasons for the restrictions, how much money prisoners can spend, what they are allowed to buy, and the impact of these policies.

Weekly Spending Limits

Prisoners are given a small weekly allowance, usually between $10-$40, to spend on basic necessities and snacks from the prison commissary. This varies by state and security level. Any money prisoners receive from outside sources is kept in their commissary account to make these purchases.

Federal Prisons

In federal prisons, prisoners can spend up to $320 per month on commissary items. This works out to around $80 per week. However, relatively few federal prisoners have $320 to spend each month. Most rely solely on their prison jobs paying 12-40 cents per hour.

State Prisons

State prisons have wider variations in weekly and monthly spending limits. California allows state prisoners to spend up to $360 per month. In Florida, the limit is $100 per week. In Texas, there is a $75 per week spending cap. State prisons also pay extremely low wages from custodial and other prison jobs.

Private Prisons

Weekly spending limits in private prisons, which hold state or federal inmates, tend to be lower and can be as little as $20 per week. Private facilities are for-profit and aim to control costs, including commissary expenses passed onto prisoners.

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Restricted Purchases

While prisoners can purchase a variety of food, hygiene, clothing, hobby, and stationery items, certain items are banned for security reasons, health concerns, or general policy.

Banned Items

Typical banned commissary items include:

  • Weapons or weapon-making supplies
  • Tobacco
  • Pornography
  • Medications
  • Electronics like TVs and radios
  • Alcohol or ingredients that could be used to make alcohol
  • Certain foods that can be used to make alcohol

Prison wardens have discretion to ban other items they deem problematic locally. Most prisons do not allow prisoners to purchase products with alcohol in them. Things like mouthwash and hand sanitizer are restricted for this reason.

Dietary and Religious Restrictions

Prisons must accommodate prisoners’ religious dietary needs, like Halal or Kosher meals. Low salt, low fat, and diabetic diets are also available for medical needs. While these do not impact general commissary spending limits, prisoners on special diets cannot purchase items that conflict with them.

Justifications for Spending Limits

Prison officials give several reasons for restricting the amount of money inmates can spend:

Prevent Black Market Trade

If prisoners were allowed unlimited spending, officials argue it would lead to more black market trading of desirable items like cigarettes, drugs, and weapons within the prison. Restricting overall purchases aims to limit this dangerous trade.

Reduce Conflicts

Similarly, the potential for strong-arming and extortion would increase if certain prisoners were allowed limitless funds. Spending caps aim to prevent bullying and debts that fuel prison violence.

Encourage Rehabilitation

In theory, strict commissary limits encourage inmates to use their money for essentials and discourage materialism. Officials claim this promotes rehabilitation, but critics argue it has little impact.

Punitive Nature of Prison

Part of the punishment and deprivation of prison is restricting creature comforts and outside shopping. Limited commissary access enforces the punitive, restrictive nature of incarceration.

Administrative Burden

Managing prisoner funds and accounting would become more labor intensive without caps. Prison administrators claim spending limits ease the administrative burden.

Impact on Prisoners

Prisoners spend their money in the highly-controlled commissary system to meet basic needs, relieve boredom, and bring minor comforts amid stark prison conditions.

Meeting Basic Needs

For prisoners without financial help from family, their commissary money must stretch to cover hygiene, supplemental food, clothing, shoes, and other essentials. Strict limits can mean tough choices and deficits in necessities.

Alleviating Boredom

Commissary food, games, electronics, hobby supplies, and reading materials provide mental stimulation and distraction from boredom. Hard caps on spending reduce access to these limited diversions.

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Improving Quality of Life

The minor luxuries of commissary access – snack foods, stamps, radios, sunglasses – give a slight boost to inmates’ quality of life. Spending limits severely constrain even these humble improvements.

Oversight and Reform

Prisoner advocates say commissary spending limits are overly harsh given inmates’ minimal earnings. Some states have reviewed compensation and caps, but major reform has not occurred. There is little political will for perceived indulgences for prisoners. The status quo continues in most states,limiting prisoner spending to between $10-$80 weekly in state and federal prisons based on security levels.

Case Studies of Notorious Criminals and Their Crimes

The following case studies provide detailed examples of spending limits affecting high-profile prisoners convicted of serious crimes. Their stories put a human face on the impacts of prison policy.

Jeffrey Dahmer


  • Convicted of 15 gruesome murders from 1978 to 1991 involving rape, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism.

Sentence & Facility

  • Sentenced to 15 consecutive life terms in 1992. Incarcerated at Columbia Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.

Spending Limits

  • As a maximum security inmate, Dahmer could only spend up to $40 per week on commissary purchases.


  • Dahmer had few resources, relying on prison wages around $60 monthly. He purchased mostly food and hygiene items,unable to afford hobby supplies. Dahmer called his limited commissary purchases “one of the most depressive aspects of prison life.”

Ted Kaczynski


  • The “Unabomber” killed 3 people and injured 23 via mail bombs from 1978 to 1995. He targeted those involved with modern technology.

Sentence & Facility

  • Sentenced to life without parole in 1998. Incarcerated at ADX Florence supermax prison in Colorado.

Spending Limits

  • At ADX Florence, prisoners can spend approximately $35 per week at the commissary.


  • The spending limit left Kaczynski unable to buy either hygiene supplies or hobby items and crafting tools. He went without deodorant and shampoo and was unable to work on writing projects.

Charles Manson


  • Led cult “The Family” in 7 notorious murders in 1969, including killing actress Sharon Tate.

Sentence & Facilities

  • Originally sentenced to death, reduced to life after death penalty abolished. Did time at San Quentin, Corcoran, and California State Prison.

Spending Limits

  • As a maximum security inmate in California, Manson could spend up to $360 monthly on commissary.


  • Manson used his commissary privileges mainly to buy snacks like candy bars, soda, sandwiches and cigarettes to share with his prison followers. Custom guitars were later banned.
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Frequently Asked Questions on Prisoner Spending

Below are answers to the most common questions on the limits to how much money inmates in the U.S. prison system can spend.


How much can prisoners spend per week?

  • Federal prisoners can spend up to $320 monthly ($80 weekly). State prisoners have limits from $10 to $100 weekly depending on the state and security level. Private prisons tend to limit spending to around $20 per week.

What kinds of things can prisoners buy?

  • Food items (snacks, tuna, ramen noodles); hygiene supplies (soap, shampoo, deodorant); clothing (underwear, shoes); hobby items (games, books, crafts); and electronics (TV, radio, MP3 player) top the list of allowed purchases.

What items are they banned from buying?

  • Weapons, alcohol, tobacco, pornography, and drugs are prohibited. Certain tools and electronics are also banned. Medications and ingredients that could be used to make alcohol cannot be purchased.

Can prisoners buy anything they want with their money?

  • No. All purchases must be made through the strict prison commissary system. Certain brands or items deemed problematic can be disallowed by prison wardens as well. Dietary restrictions also apply.

Do prisons control costs to profit off prisoners?

  • Since most commissaries are now privately operated, they do aim to make a profit off marked-up prisoner purchases. However, spending limits control how much prisoners can buy to generate revenue. Prisons themselves do not profit from commissary sales.


In summary, U.S. prisoners face strict limits on how much money they can spend, ranging from $10 to $100 weekly in most state and federal prisons. They can only buy approved items through prison commissaries. Limits aim to prevent black markets and disproportionate access to goods that could lead to conflicts.

But prisoners’ advocates say meager earnings and harsh caps mean inmates struggle to meet basic needs and achieve minor quality of life improvements. Reform efforts to ease spending restrictions for model prisoners have seen little progress nationwide. For now, incarcerated individuals and their families continue bearing the heavy burden of very limited buying power and commissary access.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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