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How Much Do Things Cost In Prison?

The cost of maintaining the prison system in the United States is staggering, with federal and state governments spending over $80 billion per year on corrections. However, the true cost of incarceration extends far beyond just operating expenses. Being imprisoned affects all aspects of a person’s life, from their physical and mental health to their family and career prospects. In this article, we will explore the myriad ways that prison life comes with a high price tag.

Financial Impact on Inmates

While inmates are provided with basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter, there are many other costs that prisoners must pay for out of their own pockets. Most inmates have very limited incomes, usually just dollars per hour for any prison jobs they can get. However, the items and services prisoners must purchase add up quickly.

Cost of Commissary Items

Inmates are able to buy food, hygiene products, clothing, and other items through the prison commissary. However, commissary prices are often marked up substantially compared to store prices in the community. Here are some examples of commissary costs that quickly drain inmates’ accounts:

  • Ramen Noodles: $0.60-$1.00 per package
  • Bottled Water: $1.00-$2.00 per bottle
  • Deodorant: $3.00-$6.00
  • Tube Socks: $2.00-$5.00
  • MP3 Player: $50.00-$200.00

In addition to day-to-day necessities, inmates may buy luxury food items like chips, candy bars, and instant coffee at inflated prices. With such limited funds, commissary costs pose a significant burden.

Medical Co-Pays

Most prisons now require inmates to pay a medical co-pay of $2 to $5 when seeking care. While this may not seem like much, it deters sick inmates from getting treatment. For inmates who require frequent medical attention due to chronic illnesses, these co-pays can quickly add up.

Communication Costs

Staying in touch with family is hugely important for inmates’ mental health. However, phone calls and emails from prison carry fees that strain already tight budgets. For example:

  • Local Phone Calls: $0.15-$0.40 per minute
  • Long Distance Phone Calls: $0.20-$1.00 per minute
  • Video Calls: $0.25-$1.00 per minute
  • Emails: $0.25-$0.75 per message

These ancillary costs are not included in the billions spent to operate prisons – inmates and their families shoulder the burden. Over a lengthy sentence, a prisoner can easily spend thousands of dollars just on basic communication.

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Costs for Families

When a person is incarcerated, the financial challenges extend to their loved ones on the outside. Families often have to stretch their own budgets to help cover costs and travel for visitation.

Sending Money

Many family members send money transfers to inmate accounts. This supplements the meager prison wages and allows prisoners to buy necessities. However, services like Western Union, JPay, Access SecureDeposits, and MoneyGram charge hefty fees for processing money transfers, from $6-$14 per transaction. These fees drain family resources.

Travel Expenses

Given that many prisons are located in remote, rural areas, visitation involves significant travel expenses. The cost of gas or plane tickets, car rentals, lodging, and meals adds up – often totaling hundreds of dollars per trip. For families struggling financially, these costs put visitation out of reach.

Attorney Fees

Inmates frequently need their families to put money towards attorney fees for appeals or civil rights cases. Paying legal fees often means families cannot afford other expenses like collect calls from prison.

Impact on Post-Release Prospects

Spending time in prison severely restricts opportunities and increases costs after release. Former prisoners struggle to get back on their feet.

Employment Obstacles

Finding stable employment is incredibly difficult with a criminal record. Former inmates earn 40% less per year and experience an unemployment rate 27% higher than the general population. Lack of savings puts recently released individuals at risk of poverty or returning to crime.

Housing Insecurity

Landlords often discriminate against applicants with a criminal history. Former prisoners are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. Living in a shelter or on the streets comes with substantial health and safety risks.

Supervision Fees

Many inmates are released under community supervision programs like parole and probation. These require frequent check-ins and fees for drug testing, electronic monitoring units, probation administration, and other costs. Supervision fees can total hundreds to thousands per month, on top of fines owed for convictions. Failure to pay can land parolees back in prison.

Case Studies

To illustrate the true cost of prison time, here are details from real criminal cases and the financial impacts felt by inmates and families.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart served 5 months in federal prison for obstructing justice and lying to investigators about a stock sale. Her experience highlights the relative privilege among certain inmates. Stewart was able to afford commissary, medication, email access, and phone calls with minimal hardship. She described her total commissary purchases while incarcerated as “a lot, like $800 per month.” This is an extreme amount compared to typical inmates. Still, someone of Stewart’s wealth was not immune to prison costs.

Cindy Rodriguez

Cindy Rodriguez was sentenced to 10 years in a Texas state prison for non-violent, low-level drug crimes. While imprisoned, she worked laundering prison uniforms for $9 per month. From these meager wages, $7 went to pay for basic hygiene items. The cost ofCalling herfamily added up to between $300-$400 per month. On one occasion, Rodriguez required hospitalization – the medical co-pay took her entire savings. After release, she was homeless and unemployed. Despite staying clean from drugs, Rodriguez ultimately violated parole due to being unable to keep up with fees, and was sent back to prison.

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Kevin Ott

Kevin Ott received a 6 year sentence for robbery and firearms charges. While incarcerated, he took advantage of prison education programs, earning his GED, an Associates degree, and several vocational certificates. Upon release, Ott got a warehouse job. However, between child support payments, supervision fees, and restitution costs from his conviction, most of Ott’s paychecks were gone after just one week. He leaned heavily on his girlfriend and mother for housing and transport during this fragile period. A minor parole violation sent him back to prison for 2 more years.

Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen, former lawyer to Donald Trump, spent 3 years in federal prison for financial crimes, lying to Congress, and campaign finance violations. While incarcerated at Otisville FCI, Cohen paid for enhanced accommodations including a private cell, laptop computer, and unlimited email access – amenities far beyond typical inmates’ reach. He was even able to continue communicating regularly with the media. Cohen described paying roughly $4,000 per month for these prison upgrades. Overall, he estimates spending $350,000-$400,000 during his sentence on such extras.

How Much do Things Cost in Prison?

To summarize, here are typical costs for common items and services in the prison commissary:

  • Ramen Noodles: $0.60-$1.00 per package
  • Bottled Water: $1.00-$2.00 per bottle
  • Deodorant: $3.00-$6.00
  • Tube Socks: $2.00-$5.00
  • MP3 Player: $50.00-$200.00
  • Emails: $0.25-$0.75 per message
  • Local Phone Calls: $0.15-$0.40 per minute
  • Long Distance Phone Calls: $0.20-$1.00 per minute
  • Medical Co-Pay: $2.00-$5.00 per visit

While prisons aim to provide basic sustenance, inmates still accrue major costs for necessary items to live day-to-day. These expenses can mean financial hardship for prisoners and their families.


The harsh truth is that prison sentences come with hidden fees, financial penalties, and restricted opportunities after release. Inmates must pay inflated costs for goods through commissaries while earning cents per hour in prison jobs.

Meanwhile, families drain their own limited budgets for money transfers, travel expenses, and legal fees. Once individuals return home from prison, criminal records present barriers to employment, housing, education, and social services. While prisons must cover inmate room, board, and security to some extent, all these additional costs disproportionately fall on incarcerated individuals, their loved ones, and struggling communities.

Beyond the sentence itself, the financial burdens of prison life perpetuate poverty and make re-entry into society that much harder. True reform requires limiting prisons to those who absolutely must be there and minimizing unnecessary costs that make serving time even harder.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to common questions about the cost of prison life:

Are inmates required to pay for meals in prison?

No, regular prison meals are provided at no cost to inmates. However, inmates who want supplemental food items must pay for them out of their own funds through the commissary.

Can inmates get any personal hygiene items for free while incarcerated?

Prisons are required to supply very basic hygiene items like soap, toothpaste, and toilet paper. However, higher quality hygiene products like brand name soaps, deodorant, lotion, and dental floss must be purchased by inmates through the commissary.

How can an inmate earn money while in prison?

Most prisons have work programs where inmates can apply for jobs doing laundry, groundskeeping, food service, and other operational tasks. However, wages typically range from just $0.10 to $1.00 per hour depending on the job. More skilled positions like tutoring or translation may earn up to $2.00 per hour at best.

Do inmates have to pay for health care they receive while incarcerated?

Under the law, prisons must provide basic medical care free of charge. However, many now charge co-pays of $2 to $5 when inmates seek care for conditions that are not emergencies. Inmates must pay for cosmetic items like dentures out of pocket. Those with chronic illnesses can accrue substantial co-pay costs.

Is there financial assistance available for families covering costs like commissary accounts or phone calls?

Some prison phone and email providers offer reduced rates for low-income families. Travel grants through charitable organizations can offset visitation costs in some cases. But there is minimal public financial assistance, so families overwhelmingly cover costs themselves. Crowdsourcing commissary funds online is an increasingly common strategy.


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Prison Inside Team

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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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