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How Much Money Do Prisoners Need?

The financial needs of prisoners is an important but often overlooked topic. Incarcerated individuals have basic necessities that require money, but their access to funds is extremely limited. Understanding how much money prisoners need can lead to better policies and programs to help meet their basic needs.

Background on Prisoner Finances

Prisoners rely on outside sources for money while incarcerated. Here is some background on typical prisoner finances:

Limited Income Sources

Prisoners have very few ways to earn or access money:

  • Prison jobs – Some prisons offer jobs, but they usually pay less than $1/hour. Opportunities are limited.
  • Family/friends – Prisoners may rely on resources from family and friends. But not all have this support.
  • Personal savings – A small portion of prisoners may have personal savings to draw from.

Costs Charged by Prisons

While in prison, inmates are charged various fees that reduce their available funds:

  • Medical co-pays – Prisons charge co-pays for medical and dental visits, often $2-5 per visit.
  • Purchase fees – Commissaries charge markups on goods prisoners purchase. A $3 tube of toothpaste may cost $6 inside prison.
  • Phone call fees – Phone calls from prison are very expensive, up to $1/minute in some states.
  • Booking fees – Some states charge inmates a booking fee that can range from $20-100.

Restricted Access to Financial Systems

Prisoners have restrictions accessing banks and financial services:

  • Limited check writing abilities
  • No cash withdrawals or deposits
  • No credit cards or loans

This makes managing any money prisoners do have more difficult. Overall, prisoners have very little income, face high costs, and have financial restrictions.

Essential Prisoner Expenses

Despite their low incomes, prisoners do have basic needs that require funding. Expenses fall into three major categories:

Commissary Purchases

Commissaries are prison stores where inmates can purchase:

  • Food and drinks – To supplement prison meals
  • Toiletries – Like soap, toothpaste, and deodorant
  • Medications – Such as pain relievers, vitamins, cold medicine
  • Clothing and shoes
  • Electronics – Radios, TVs, media players in some facilities
  • Office supplies – Stamps, paper, pens
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Inmates in federal prisons spend an average of $1,000-$1,500 per year solely on commissary purchases.

Communication Costs

Maintaining contact with family and friends outside prison comes at a high cost:

  • Phone calls – Collect calls from inmates average about 15 cents per minute.
  • Email – Some prisons offer limited email for inmates for approximately 5-50 cents per message.
  • Postage – Mailing letters to and from prison can amount to $30-50 a month.
  • Greeting cards – Holiday cards and postcards can cost $1-5 each with commissary markups.

These communication costs quickly add up, but are essential for prisoners’ mental health.

Medical Expenses

Medical issues arise regularly in prison. Inmates must pay portions of these costs:

  • Co-pays – $2-5 fees for doctor visits and medications
  • Dental – Expensive dental procedures like fillings and root canals
  • Prescriptions – A single prescription can cost $5-20
  • Medical devices – Such as eyeglasses, hearing aids or wheelchairs

For inmates with chronic health issues, these co-pays and fees can amount to hundreds per year.

Typical Money Spent by Prisoners

Based on the essential costs outlined above, we can estimate typical expenditures for prisoners:

  • Commissary – $1000-$1500 per year
  • Communication – $300-$600 per year
  • Medical – $100-$500 per year

This amounts to $1400-$2600 per year in basic expenses for most inmates. Higher medical costs or more communication can increase this. Special occasions also come up:

  • Holiday gifts – Like presents for children’s birthdays – $30-$100 per occasion
  • Emergency needs – Rare large costs, like attorney fees or funeral expenses for family – $500+

These amounts illustrate the scope of costs prisoners routinely face.

Challenges Prisoners Face Covering Expenses

With such limited income sources available, how do prisoners pay for their basic needs? Covering routine prison expenses poses major challenges:

Low Prison Wages

Prison jobs help, but pay extremely low wages. Typical jobs like janitor, laundry, or food service pay $0.14-$0.40 per hour. An inmate would need to work full time for an entire month just to pay for a single medical co-pay or birthday gift.

Reliance on Outside Support

Many prisoners depend heavily on resources from family and friends. But not all inmates have this support network. Those who lack outside money struggle covering phone calls, commissary costs, gifts for children, and other expenses.

Prioritizing Needs

Prisoners must make difficult trade-offs on what necessities to pay for with limited funds. Calling family or buying toothpaste? A book or postage stamps? Paying for one need often means doing without something else.

Debt and Arrears

Inmates are often forced to go into debt or arrears on their accounts. Medical co-pays, communication fees, and commissary purchases stack up against them. Prisoners focused simply on getting by day-to-day may accumulate hundreds in unpaid fees over time.

Overall, covering routine costs is a constant challenge for the incarcerated. Their options to earn and spend money are extremely restricted compared to free citizens.

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Programs to Provide Prisoner Funding

To help address this issue, some programs exist aimed at supporting the financial needs of inmates:

Family Funding Accounts

These programs allow family and friends to deposit money into accounts inmates can access. Money can be used for communication, commissary, gifts, and other approved expenses.

Crowdfunded Commissary Accounts

Charities crowdfund or collect donations to fund commissary accounts for inmates lacking outside support. Donations pay for hygiene items, snacks, or just a little spending money.

Medical Expense Assistance

Organizations like the HAP program help prisoners pay medical fees their families can’t afford. HAP provides some coverage for co-pays, prescriptions, and emergency medical costs.

Reentry Savings Funds

Some facilities help inmates save money for reentry after release. Savings programs allow prisoners to set aside money for clothes, housing costs, and transportation immediately upon release.

Such programs provide limited extra resources for prisoners in need. But the funding falls far short of meeting most inmates’ basic costs.

How Much Money Do Prisoners Really Need?

So with all that in mind, how can we estimate a reasonable amount of money prisoners truly require to meet their basic necessities?

Some advocacy groups estimate $150-$200 per month provides the minimum funding needed for today’s inmates when all essential costs are factored in. This amount could cover costs like:

  • 2-3 medical co-pays
  • Hygiene items and supplemental food for a month
  • Minimum communication with family
  • Occasional gifts and support for children
  • Limited savings for reentry

Additional programs to assist in expensive medical care, emergency needs, and saving for reentry would be helpful to supplement this amount. An estimated $200 per month would put many prisoners on stable enough financial footing to meet their core monthly needs.

Opposing Viewpoints

However, some oppose prisoners having access to this level of funding, countering:

  • Prisoners forfeited their full rights and privileges by violating the law.
  • Crime victims and communities shouldn’t have to pay to support criminals.
  • It could allow abuses like black market dealings.
  • Prison is meant to limit freedoms as a deterrent to crime.

They argue prisoners should be fully responsible for financing their own costs, not receive handouts. Or that funding should be extremely minimal.

However, advocates counter:

  • Access to basic necessities is a human right, despite mistakes.
  • Appropriate funding can improve health, behavior, and reentry success.
  • Prisons already fund the basics like food and shelter. This just enables minimum self-care.
  • Lower funding undermines rehabilitation efforts.

They argue providing basic funding enhances correctional goals like rehabilitation.

There are good-faith arguments on both sides of this issue. Reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate level of resources inmates should have access to.

Policy Options

Given the scope of this issue, a range of policy options exist:

Status Quo

Maintaining current policies keeps prisoner funding very low, but offers no relief to the challenges inmates face meeting their basic costs. Most inmates would continue accumulating debts.

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Expand Access to Existing Programs

Increasing enrollment in commissary assistance, medical expense aid, and family accounts could provide limited help to more inmates. But funding would still fall far below minimum needs.

Increase Prison Wages

Paying inmates more for prison jobs would allow them to better cover their own costs. But extremely high wage hikes would be needed to enable self-sufficiency.

Government Subsidies to Prisoners

Direct government subsidies of perhaps $100-200 per month to all prisoners could enable them to cover their core costs. But it would impose major public costs.

Each option involves trade-offs in costs, benefits, and values. There are reasonable arguments for each approach depending on principles and priorities.

Table of Convicted Criminals

NameCrimeDate ConvictedConviction Quote
John SmithRobbery3/12/2010“I regret the foolish mistakes that led me here and am working to better myself.”
Jane DoeTax Fraud8/30/2018“I got caught up in greed and will have to live with the consequences now.”
Jim JohnsonAssault12/5/2014“Violence only breeds more violence. I’m learning other ways to settle disputes.”
Ashley BrownDrug possession6/20/2016“This conviction doesn’t define me. I’m focusing on the positive path ahead.”
Mark DavisBurglary4/17/2012“My crimes hurt innocent people. I’m committed to making amends however I can.”


How much money prisoners really need is a complex issue. Inmates face high costs covering basic necessities with extremely limited incomes. Estimates suggest prisoners require around $150-$200 per month at a minimum just for health, hygiene, communication, and other core expenses.

But providing enhanced funding to inmates raises debates over rights, values, costs, and benefits. There are thoughtful points on both sides. The key is striving for policies that uphold human dignity as much as possible within practical constraints. Providing solutions to meet inmates’ most essential needs, while also demanding accountability, could point the way forward.

With careful programs and policies, we can hopefully find ways of giving incarcerated individuals a minimum level of financial resources and autonomy without compromising the overall goals and obligations of the correctional system. This will continue being an important issue as we work to make steady improvements to our criminal justice policies.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much can prisoners earn from jobs while incarcerated?

Most prison jobs pay very low wages, often between $0.14-$0.40 per hour. Opportunities to earn are extremely limited for the prison population.

Can family and friends send money to inmates?

Yes, most prisons allow family and friends to deposit money in inmate accounts. This assists prisoners in covering costs but is not accessible to all.

What happens when prisoners can’t pay required fees?

Unpaid fees for medical, communication, and other costs accumulate as debt on the prisoner’s account. This debt continues building through the inmate’s sentence.

How do prisons justify charging for expenses like medical visits?

Prisons cite costs of administering health services and say coinsurance encourages responsible use of healthcare. But critics argue vital care should not be denied based on funds.

Do prisons offer any assistance programs for inmates lacking financial resources?

Some limited assistance programs exist, like help funding medical copays or providing basic hygiene items. But these meet only a fraction of inmate needs. Expanding support is debated.

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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