Additional reporting by Lawrence Bartley
Additional development by Ryan Murphy
Illustrations by Max Guther
Perspectives from those who work and live in the criminal justice system. Sign up to receive “Life Inside” emailed to you every week.
People in prison get “three hots and a cot,” right? So, what do they need money for? A lot, it turns out.
Prisons typically provide the bare minimum when it comes to food, clothes, shoes and hygiene supplies. Some states provide items such as toothpaste, soap and limited amounts of letter-writing supplies only to the “indigent,” or those who have little to no money. Other goods that many would consider necessities — deodorant, shampoo, sneakers, thermal clothes for winter — are often only available to people who can afford them.
But earning enough from a prison job is nearly impossible: The average prison wage maxes out at 52 cents per hour, according to a new ACLU analysis, and many people make pennies per hour. That means that basics, like a $3 tube of toothpaste, can take days of work to afford. If you get paid, that is. In at least six states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — prisoners aren’t paid at all for their labor.
To make up for their paltry wages, people in prison often take part in a thriving underground economy of side hustles, bartering stamps or commissary items for everything from hand-drawn greeting cards to makeshift home cooking to legal help.
In recent months, The Marshall Project has corresponded with dozens of incarcerated people about the money they make, the money they spend and the lengths to which they go to secure basic needs and comforts. We asked several people to log their transactions for us; they also sent receipts and monthly account statements for commissary purchases. Along with that information, we gathered commissary catalogs and conducted email and phone interviews about their official prison jobs and side hustles. Most are serving long sentences for serious crimes; some have spent decades behind bars.
Read their stories to learn how they navigate and survive, often through sheer determination and ingenuity, the harsh reality of prison economics.
Ricardo Ferrell, 64
Job: Prisoner observation aide, helping to monitor incarcerated men under suicide watch. Also a reading and writing tutor.
Location: Gus Harrison Correctional Facility, Adrian, Michigan
Monthly income: $250-$350
I was carefully selected to be a POA, which means prisoner observation aide, after applying for it. There was rigorous screening and training. Prior to the prisoners doing this job, …….