Money and sex seem to be the most prevalent themes within entertainment, reflecting the focus of our society. Money allows the owner of that currency a wide range of freedom and choice in all arenas of life. But, what happens to the value and power of money for that currency owner when he or she becomes an inmate in the United States Federal Penitentiary system?
Prison is the great equalizer of currency. The population of federal prisons includes everyone, from the homeless to millionaires, and they all experience a‘glass ceiling’ with regard to currency.
In a federal maximum-security prison, inmates are allowed to spend approximately $300 per month at the commissary, no matter what the current balance is on their inmate account. There are also special orders for religious purposes or exceptions for certain art supplies, but other than that, the rich and poor alike must order from the same small list of overpriced commissary items.
Unlike the free world where the rich can purchase anything within or outside their means, from private jets to tropical islands, in prison every inmate has access to the same items. So, you may wonder, does this dilute the value of currency in prison? Not necessarily, because there remains, as in any system, a black market.
A man doesn’t stop being a man just because of his location. Certainly there are priority shifts and limitation changes, but some things never change. Money remains powerful, even in prison. Only the influence of its range has changed. With access to currency limited to a balance on an inmate account, the prison population has adopted U.S. postage as currency. A single-dollar stamp is valued at a dollar currency; the forever stamps are valued at fifty cents. Bartering is still regularly enacted in the prison system, but stamps are the primary currency used for the exchange of goods either illegal or against prison policy: illicit and prescribed drugs, protection in the form of bodyguards, hit men for hire, and, of course, sexual favors.
The more common, alternative types of ’Prison Currency’ are for those inmates without a regular income or money received from family members. These individuals provide cleaning services, charging a dollar or so to clean a cell or to do a load of laundry. They are also known to steal their food trays, which can go for one to even three dollars. Food trays are valuable because food is tightly regulated, with each inmate allowed only a single tray at each of the three daily meals. This is regulated with a bar code scanner, and each inmate must present his ID card for scanning by an officer at the food-pickup window.
There are those inmates who capitalize on the occasional laxity of officers and manage to find a hole in security. They can sometimes procure an additional food tray, to be sold for one to three dollars’ worth of U.S. postal stamps, depending on the quality of the meal. If you are found to have had your ID scanned more than once, you will be called to the lieutenant’s office within 24 hours to account for the additional scanning. The typical sanction for this offense is a deduction of $1.20 from your inmate account and a six-month suspension of either commissary, visits, or phone use.
Jobs are few and far between in some institutions. Some prisons have Uni-Core, a government organization that contracts prison resources for anything from inmate clothing, to recycling projects, to repairing government equipment such as patrol cars and military vehicles. These jobs usually pay fairly well in proportion to the cost of living in prison, often upwards of three hundred dollars a month. As another example, prison barbers charge three to five dollars for a haircut, in addition to what they are paid by the facility for the job. Other jobs, such as Education Tutoring, with which I am intimately familiar, are paid anywhere from only $8 to $30 dollars a month.
My current wage as a G.E.D. tutor is approximately $15 a month. And that accounts for about fifteen to twenty hours a week — a considerable amount of time and energy spent for very modest pay. Despite my need for income and lack of marketable skills in a prison setting, I refuse to involve myself in the nefarious, albeit lucrative, activities of drug distribution, alcohol production, and sexual favors.
To supplement my income, I have found a small but stable market in the resale of magazines, books, and other reading materials. Although having an additional two or three hundred dollars a month you’re prohibited from spending doesn’t really help during the day-to-day, you can at least send it home to family or take it with you when you get out.
Is the glass ceiling of currency a big issue in prison? Ultimately, not really. The prison provides everything a person needs, with the emphasis on needs. Many inmates feel they are doing better in prison than they did on the streets. Satisfied with just the basic improvement in their quality of life, they do not feel the need for any extra, unlike those who have had more than they ever needed their whole lives.
When a person is transferred into the custody of the Bureau Of Prisons (BOP), along with a uniform and hygiene, he is issued a picture ID with a number and bar-code. This ID is linked to his central file, which not only contains conviction details, but also manages the inmate’s email, phone list, and funds.
Any money sent to an inmate by approved methods, such as U.S. Postal Money order or electronically by Western Union, is posted to his account, which can take anywhere from two weeks (for money orders) to hours (electronically). These accounts are highly secure and only accessible by electronic thumb print scanner. These accounts are also the method by which the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) deposits wages for inmates fortunate enough to have jobs, and they also make withdrawals for restitution.
In the prison system it seems the optimal amount of accessible money would be in the range of only $100 to $300 a month. Any more is just a digital number in an account, completely inaccessible during prison time. A million dollars is no more valuable than three hundred, and U.S. paper money has no value unless you can find a staff member to bribe with it. But, of course, that very staff member might eventually find himself shopping at the commissary too.