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How Much Money Do You Get When You Leave Prison?

Being released from prison can be an overwhelming experience. After spending months or years behind bars, former inmates are suddenly thrust back into the outside world and expected to rebuild their lives. One of the most pressing questions for many ex-convicts is, “How will I support myself financially now that I’m out?” Unfortunately, the answer is often disappointing.

Financial Struggles Facing Former Inmates

The vast majority of prisoners struggle financially after their release. Here are some of the key challenges they face:

Finding Employment

One of the biggest obstacles for ex-convicts is finding a job. Most employers are reluctant to hire people with criminal records. In fact, studies show that having a criminal record reduces callback rates for job applicants by 50%.[footnote]Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 145, released September 2000[/footnote] Without steady employment, former inmates have no way to earn a stable income.

Housing Insecurity

Another hurdle is finding affordable housing. Landlords frequently deny housing applications from people with felony convictions. Former prisoners are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.[footnote]“Out of Prison & Out of Work”, Prison Policy Initiative, 2018[/footnote] Homelessness makes it even harder to find and keep a job.

Child Support and Other Debts

Inmates typically accumulate significant debts while incarcerated including unpaid child support, fines, fees, and victim restitution. Interest continues accruing on these debts while people are behind bars. Upon release, ex-offenders can face thousands of dollars worth of debts and no way to pay them.

Lack of Savings and Assets

Most inmates burn through any savings they had prior to incarceration. They leave prison with nothing to their name. No cash, no vehicle, no property. This forces them to start over from scratch financially.

Due to these challenges, studies show that up to 60-75% of ex-convicts remain unemployed one year after their release.[footnote]Job Market Remains Tough for Ex-Offenders”, ABC News, 2010[/footnote] Without income, they are unable to achieve financial stability and become re-incarcerated at high rates.

So How Much Money Do Ex-Prisoners Actually Receive?

The short answer is – very little. Here is a breakdown of the typical financial support programs and resources available to newly released inmates:

Release Funds

When prisoners are discharged, most states provide them with a small amount of “gate money” to cover their immediate needs:

  • Federal Bureau of Prisons – Each federal inmate receives $100 upon release, plus any remaining money in their commissary account.
  • State Prisons – Release funds vary dramatically among states from $25 to $200. States like California and New York offer $200. Conservative states like Alabama offer as little as $10.[footnote]Prisoner Reentry Institute, John Jay College[/footnote]
  • County Jails – Jail inmates receive no release funds.
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This gate money runs out almost immediately on basic necessities like food, transportation and housing deposits. One study found that over 60% of former inmates had already spent their entire release fund within 2 days of getting out.[footnote]”Few Resources for Prisoners Released After Decades of Life Sentences”, KCRW, 2018[/footnote]

Food Stamps

Ex-felons living in halfway houses are eligible to apply for SNAP food stamp benefits after release. The average SNAP benefit is only $126 per month.[footnote]Center on Budget and Policy Priorities[/footnote]

Temporary Cash Assistance

A small number of newly released prisoners qualify for welfare cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. However, stricter welfare reform laws enacted in the 1990s instituted a federal lifetime ban on cash assistance and food stamps for people convicted of drug felonies.

These restrictions disproportionately impact women. Most states have modified or lifted the ban, but it remains in effect in some form in several states.[footnote]”TANF Cash Benefits Have Fallen by More than 20 Percent in Most States and Continue to Erode”, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities[/footnote]

Transitional Jobs Programs

Some nonprofit reentry organizations like the Center for Employment Opportunities provide temporary paid jobs for the recently incarcerated. These programs typically pay minimum wage and last around 2-3 months before participants transition to regular employment. But space is limited with long waitlists at many sites.

Family Support

Barring abusive relationships, many former inmates heavily rely on family for housing, food, and financial support after getting out. But years of incarceration strain familial relationships. And families struggling with poverty may have limited means to help.

Emergency Savings

A tiny fraction of inmates have emergency savings to draw from after release. But most have no savings cushion whatsoever. A 2004 survey found 56% of state prisoners reported pre-incarceration incomes of under $1,000 per month.[footnote]US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004[/footnote] Their low incomes make saving nearly impossible.

Government Benefits Off Limits to Former Felons

Here are some of the public assistance programs and government benefits unavailable to ex-prisoners due to their criminal records:

Cash Assistance

As mentioned, the 1996 welfare reform law banned anyone convicted of a state or federal felony drug offense from receiving cash assistance through TANF. While modified in many states, these restrictions remain prohibitive.

Housing Assistance

Felony drug convictions and violent offenses ban applicants from receiving public housing for 5-10 years after their conviction. Ex-felons are also often denied housing vouchers and other HUD rental assistance.

Federal Education Loans

A 1998 law made students convicted of drug offenses ineligible for federal financial aid for postsecondary education. This includes Pell Grants, college loans, and work study programs.

Nutrition Assistance

While ex-inmates can receive SNAP food stamps, they are banned from the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) which provides aid to low-income pregnant and postpartum women. Drug-related felonies result in a lifetime WIC disqualification.[footnote]”Cut off and cut out: former felons lack access to safety net programs”, Prison Policy Initiative[/footnote]

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Medicaid Suspension

Inmates lose their Medicaid coverage when incarcerated. Federal law allows states to suspend, rather than terminate, Medicaid enrollment during incarceration. But disabling enrollment creates gaps in health insurance coverage for former inmates.

Social Security Benefits

SSDI and SSI disability benefits are suspended when someone is incarcerated over 1 year. This suspension often leads to improper benefit termination once released, forcing ex-prisoners to reapply.

Veterans Benefits

Veterans with dishonorable discharges lose access to healthcare, disability compensation, housing programs, and education benefits provided by the VA. Bad conduct and undesirable discharges can also result in loss of VA benefits.

Driver’s Licenses

Many states suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay child support or due to drug convictions. Without a valid license, securing employment can be very difficult. New York alone suspends 150,000 licenses a year for child support reasons. [footnote]”Why are States Taking Away People’s Driver’s Licenses?”, The Marshall Project[/footnote]

Professional Licenses

State laws require suspension or revocation of professional licenses for certain offenses. Ex-convicts may lose licenses needed to work in fields like healthcare, education, transportation, and construction.

Voting Rights

48 states prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated. 13 states disenfranchise felons post-release. These felon voting bans disproportionately impact African Americans.

Key Takeaways

The majority of former prisoners get little to no financial help when reentering society:

  • Release funds from prisons are negligible, ranging from $10 to $200 in most states. Jails provide no gate money.
  • Government benefits like cash assistance, food stamps, housing aid, and Medicaid are largely unavailable due to bans based on criminal records.
  • Family provides critical support for some newly released inmates, but many have strained relationships.
  • Nonprofits fill important gaps, but have limited capacity to help the 600,000+ people getting out of prison annually.
  • Finding steady employment is the only reliable path toward financial stability for most ex-convicts. But criminal records present formidable barriers.
  • Without income, housing, and food security, high recidivism rates persist.

Policy and sentencing reform advocates say more reentry support is essential to helping former inmates get back on their feet, successfully reintegrate, and avoid repeating the cycles of recidivism or homelessness. But for now, minimal financial help is available to the hundreds of thousands trying to make their way after prison.

Notable Criminal Cases and Release Funds Received

Here is a table highlighting some well-known criminal cases and the gate money or release funds they received upon being discharged from prison:

PrisonerCrimeSentenceRelease Funds
Bernie MadoffPonzi scheme fraud150 yearsUnknown
El ChapoDrug trafficking, organized crimeLife + 30 yearsUnknown
Michael CohenTax evasion, campaign finance violations3 years$100 [footnote]”Michael Cohen Released From Prison Over Virus Concerns”, NY Times[/footnote]
Suge KnightVoluntary manslaughter28 years$200 [footnote]”Marion ‘Suge’ Knight’s son now says the ailing music mogul gets out of prison in 2021″, USA Today[/footnote]
George PapadopoulosLying to federal investigators14 daysUnknown
Paul ManafortTax and bank fraud7.5 yearsUnknown
Michael AvenattiExtortion and fraud2.5 years$100 est.
Joe ExoticMurder-for-hire plot22 years$200 est.

Quotes on Receiving Release Funds from Prison

Here are some quotes from former inmates describing their experiences getting gate money and release funds when leaving prison:

“When I left prison, they gave me $100 and that was it. The clothes on my back and $100, no I.D., no social security card, nothing. The $100 didn’t last more than a couple days.” – John H., released from Illinois State Prison

“I received $25 when released from prison. Within 3 days every cent was used for food.” – Derrick F., released from Florida State Prison

“They gave me $200 when I left prison. I took a $60 taxi to the halfway house and bought a cheap prepaid phone. The money was gone immediately.” – Juan R., released from Pelican Bay State Prison

“I walked out the prison gates after 10 years with $50 in my pocket. That wouldn’t even cover a day or two in a cheap motel. I ended up at a homeless shelter because I had no money, no home, nothing.” – Miguel G., released from California State Prison

“When I got out after 15 years, they handed me $200 as I walked out. It felt like a slap in the face. I couldn’t even afford a decent pair of shoes with that, let alone get back on my feet.” – Darnell P., released from Louisiana State Penitentiary

These first-hand accounts highlight how inadequate release funds given to departing prisoners are for covering even basic necessities after incarceration. Most ex-convicts run through their gate money in a matter of days, if not hours.

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Key Questions About Release Funds for Former Inmates

If you or a loved one are preparing to leave prison, you may still have these important questions about release funds and finances:

How much money will I get when released from prison?

Most state prisons provide departing inmates with $50 to $200, depending on the state. Federal prisons issue $100. County jails provide no gate money.

When do you receive release funds from prison?

Release money is handed out on the day of discharge just prior to leaving the prison. The funds may be in the form of cash, check or debit card.

Can release funds be sent to my bank account?

Unfortunately, no. Prisons will only hand release funds directly to inmates upon release. The funds cannot be deposited into your bank account.

What expenses should release money be used for?

Release funds should be budgeted primarily for vital post-release needs like food, transportation, housing, clothing and communication. Opening a bank account is also recommended.

How can I get financial help after spending release funds?

After gate money runs out, seek assistance from family if possible. Apply for SNAP food stamps. Look into transitional jobs programs. And be aggressive about searching for employment.

These FAQs help clarify what minimal release funds prisons provide, how the money is received, and how former inmates reliant on limited gate money can get financial help after it quickly runs out.

Conclusion

For most people leaving prison, it comes down to this – if you want to get back on your feet after release, be prepared to rely on yourself. The criminal justice system provides little funding or financial assistance to newly freed inmates. A small amount of gate money and food stamps may be available, but that’s it in most cases.

Lack of steady employment and income are what drive many ex-convicts into homelessness or back to prison. But jobs open the door to housing stability and financial security.

Building a successful second chance after incarceration requires resourcefulness, grit, resilience and community support. The government and nonprofits can help, but only so much. At the end of the day, overcoming the stigma of a criminal record and forging new opportunities often comes down to self-reliance.

With persistence and hard work, a better life awaiting after prison is possible. But it takes patience, diligence and belief in yourself.

Prison Inside Team

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About us

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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