One thing that surprised me about being incarcerated in federal prison was how expensive it is. The culture of my past supports the general conception that prison is where “other” people go and that while “they” are there, the government provides everything they need. It was a rude awakening when I arrived on the prison scene as a mortgage bad-guy from the 2008 collapse serving a fresh 15 year bid. The federal prison system does not provide everything an inmate needs to live daily life. Not even close. I had to come to grips with the fact that not only had I substantially embarrassed my parents, caused real harm to two young children and their mother, contributed to the mortgage madness, but now I would have to do one of two things, or a combination of both: 1) start calling friends and family and asking for money, or 2) participate in the prison economy.
And this is the great dilemma of inmates, their families, and friends. There is simply so much cost associated with being an inmate. And this is in addition to loss of income (typically primary wage earner) and the cost of traveling and visits for families incarcerated far away from their homes (the feds are keeping me 1,500 miles away from my children and parents). The average federal inmate has to find a way to come up with over $2,000 per year just to live in prison. And if an inmate has to participate in forced restitution payments (like me), that number can jump to up to $3,000 per year or higher.
The federal prison system provides khaki clothes and underwear and socks and boots that are dubbed “Frankensteins” by the inmates. That’s it. They provide three meals a day in accordance with a national menu and/or lock-down substitutes during periods of lockdown. And they provide indigent toiletries to inmates who have no money. These toiletries will cause your skin to break out, your teeth to stain, and your hair to fall out. It is unlikely the chemicals in them have any type of cleansing ability at all; they serve more as encouragement to buy the real stuff from commissary with money from somewhere.
The first time my mother saw a tray of food on an officers desk from the inmate “main-line” chow hall, her face turned to terror mixed with shame for her only son. She asked me “how much do I need to send so you don’t have to eat that?” The first time I tasted a soy-replacement-hamburger patty, or a “chili casserole”, or an institutional “baked ziti” with “shelf-stable” unrefrigerated cheese, or “swedish meatballs” that don’t have meat and aren’t from sweden, the “rude” was added to the “awakening”.
And I wanted to work out. So that meant tennis shoes — $90 (will last 8 months, will need 14 pairs over my entire bid). And the frankensteins kill your feet, which meant boots — $100 (they last 3 years…will need 4 pairs over my 15 year bid). I wanted to email my family — $20/month. I wanted toiletries that wouldn’t poison me and actually worked — $15/month. I wanted to call home to speak to my children and parents — it is a fifteen year prison bid after all – $45/month. Needed workout clothes and sweat suits for the winter – $150 / year ongoing replacements. I wanted to drink coffee $10/month. I look back at this list and think: was I being greedy for all these years? Were my wants crazy? I never did “leave” the chow hall. The answer to my mom that day was “too much” but we found a way where I could “dodge” the worst of the meals, and skip out maybe on the worst 10-15% of the institution servings, and maybe have a celebratory meal every once in a while. That would cost $100/month in commissary. In all, I would end up “wanting” to spend over $200 per month.
So add to the guilt and shame of the crime, of the incarceration, the need to “raise” money to live in federal prison. My parents graciously helped. Friends would too. More shame. More guilt. More perpetual reminders of my constantly relived failures.
And every once in a while, I would participate in the prison economy. I wouldn’t participate in the more aggressive sides of the economy, the daily exchanges of phones, cigarettes, or drugs. But there is a whole other prison economy that is “against the rules” but available. Hypothetical examples: Clean men’s rooms and cells, pick up $50 a month. Do a legal filing to help a guy get a divorce, pick up at little more. Do typing, pick up stampers per page. And all of this “broke the rules” that state “no inmate can provide another inmate with anything of value.” Which means when a guy is just coming into prison, and is just getting the “rude awakening” of how expensive prison is — it’s against the rules for me to give him an old worn down pair of shoes to buy him some time so he can find out how he is going to “raise” money. To call home. To drink coffee. To exist. But I give them to him anyways. — Christopher W.