Revealed: Hidden costs of incarceration burden inmates’ families

Editor’s note: While this blog follows Gideon Walletsky’s time in prison, it’s important to remember that many of his experiences are shared by thousands of inmates across the United States. From time to time, Gideon’s stories will serve as a starting point in examining larger issues in America’s prison system. This installment of Revealed takes a look at the hidden costs of incarceration.

Most people assume inmates get many things—for example, food and personal supplies—for “free,” but that’s not always the case. Yes, inmates’ basic necessities are provided by the prison system, but their families are expected to pay for an array of items related to their care.

The costs of food and personal items—some of the hidden costs of incarceration—often take a toll on inmates’ families. “For some, it might not be bad, but when your family is poor, it sucks,” Gideon’s daughter Naomi said “It just gets to be a lot, depending on how much you send.”

Some inmates help pay for their expenses by working jobs in the prison. For example, Gideon earns 25 cents per hour ($20 per month) emptying trash cans. He typically uses his wages to buy toiletries from the commissary (a type of general store operated by an outside company), but $20 doesn’t go very far. Most of Gideon’s expenses fall on Naomi and his mother.

Until a few years ago, Gideon lived off a $30,000 inheritance from his father. Some of the money went to daily necessities, gifts for family members, and Gideon’s final expenses (a condition of him receiving the inheritance), but a large amount was spent on drugs, jailhouse booze, and cigarettes. Since his inheritance is now exhausted, Gideon relies on his family to pay for his needs.

Food

It’s widely known that prisons provide food for inmates, but the quality and quantity of prison grub are secrets that don’t make it outside prison walls. In many prisons, inmates are given barely enough food to survive, resulting in weight loss and other health issues. Prisoners make up the difference by purchasing food from the commissary.

Naomi and Gideon’s mother each put $20 per month in his “trust fund account,” which he uses to buy food and toiletries. Naomi mails a money order to the company that handles inmates’ accounts to avoid incurring fees associated with sending money online or by phone, and it takes about three weeks for the funds to “hit” his account.

Gideon’s family is careful to send only $40 per month—just enough money for him to purchase food. Naomi leaves him “absolutely no room to play, no wiggle room”—i.e., no extra money to spend on drugs or booze. “He doesn’t need any play money,” she explained. “He can probably get some extras, but I make it tight.”

In Gideon’s prison, inmates are actually allowed to “eat out” from time to time. Once every three months, prisoners order from fast-food restaurants, and prison guards fetch the grub from the restaurants. The minimum order is $20 per inmate, and the maximum is $30.

Gideon believes the prison hikes up prices when inmates get to order out­­­­—he thinks he should get more food for the money. But the costs for prisoners are the same prices everyone else pays. “He remembers prices from over 20 years ago,” Naomi explained.

In April, Gideon was able to “feast like a king” on two rotisserie chickens and sides from the Wal-Mart deli because of his job with the maintenance crew. Everyone in his unit will get to order from Popeye’s in May, meaning he will eat chicken from outside the prison two months in a row.

Back-to-back months of eating out have put a strain on Gideon’s family, but Naomi knows it’s a special treat for him. “It’s good,” she said. “I don’t want him to be hurt.” Still, the monthly commissary bill and two months of Gideon ordering fast food have taken a toll on her wallet.

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The hidden costs of incarceration add up quickly.

Personal items

Inmates and their families also must pay for an array of personal items—for example, personal fans, clothing, and shoes. Over the years, Gideon’s family has purchased two box fans, a small cooler, at least two TVs, headphones, clothing, shoes, and other items to make his time in prison more comfortable.

Personal items must be purchased from an outside vendor. While the company charges reasonable prices for some items, it gouges inmates’ families for other things. For example, on the vendor’s website, an eight-inch fan goes for $32.60; a similar fan is listed for $14.88 on Wal-Mart’s website. Other items available from the company include:

  • Running shoes: $66.95 (prices vary greatly at other retailers);
  • Three-pack of white crew socks: $14.25 (Wal-Mart’s price for a 10-pack: $9.48);
  • “Big man” boxer briefs (1 pack): $15.35 (Wal-Mart’s price for a five-pack: $13.96);
  • Clear 15-inch LED TV: $162.70 (comparable TV at Wal-Mart: $89.99); and
  • Six-can cooler: $21.95 (Wal-Mart’s price: $6.97).

With prices like that, it’s easy to see how the hidden costs of incarceration add up.

Over the years, Gideon and his family have learned they can’t always buy the cheapest items from the prison vendor because they don’t last. Other times, going with the least expensive option isn’t a great idea. “Some of them little short-shorts are like eight bucks. The longer ones are 20 bucks,” Naomi noted. “The straight men don’t want the short-shorts.”

Because Gideon is in a medium/minimum security unit, he can order personal items four times per year—January, April, July, and October. The three-month intervals mean he must anticipate when his clothes, shoes, and other items will wear out and order replacements before they fail. “If you need shoes for winter, you have to plan,” Naomi said. “I make him plan far in advance because he doesn’t understand budgets.”

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