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, correctional officers had to do it. We’re getting paid $3.34 per four-hour session. So we’re saving them money. Also, a prisoner on suicide watch would be more apt to speak with a fellow prisoner than a CO or a mental health professional. As soon as we’re at the door, they’re revealing what’s going on.
If I work two sessions, that’s $6.68 per day. Almost nothing else in the Department of Corrections pays like this. Plus, during Covid, they gave us hazard pay — $2 extra per day. Last July, I made $334. The two primary things I spend on are: my phone credit account and commissary store purchases. The food at the chow hall is terrible and of poor quality — it’s not fit for a dog, seriously.
Recently, the commissary prices have been significantly raised. For example, an 8-ounce bag of Maxwell House coffee increased from $8.45 to $10.01. A jar of mayonnaise almost doubled in price, from $3.61 to $6.12. The same crunch being felt by ordinary folks in society is magnified for those inside because of the low wages paid for prison labor.
But if you save like I do, then you can have a nice little nest egg when you get out of here. I have $3,100 in my account.
To do my job, I got up at 5:00 yesterday morning. Washed up. Did my other work assignment real quick. When you take this job, it still allows you to have a dual assignment. I also tutor guys on the unit with their reading and writing.
Then, at 6:30, I went over to segregation. They strip-search us before we go over there. They give us these pink shirts with “POA” on them. I’m relieving somebody that’s already been there. He’ll bring me up to speed, and I pick up where the guy left off.
When I first sit down, I do a silent prayer for the individual in the cell. And every 15 minutes I document what the person is doing. I might say, ‘He got up and used the toilet, and then he laid back down.’ I try to engage them in conversation if they want to talk. The vast majority of guys on suicide watch like to talk.
I get them to laugh. I try to talk to them about what’s going on. Most of these guys are going to get out of here in no time. They’ve got paroles. They’re going home in less than a year. I tell those guys, ‘Look, here’s my situation. My mother got murdered while I was in here. I’ve been here 41 years. I got a bunch of buddies that never made it out. They died before they could make it out.’ What I’m trying to tell them is, ‘You’ve got everything in the world going for you, man, why harm yourself?’
I find the job to be therapeutic. I had a close friend that came real close to killing themselves. Not only do I help these individuals, by doing this, I’m helping myself. I’m in here for taking someone else’s life. Now I’m saving people’s lives. That’s how I look at it.
Louis Dixon, 27
JOB: Unemployed grass cutter
LOCATION: El Dorado Correctional Facility, El Dorado, Kansas
MONTHLY INCOME: $0
For years, when I first got locked up, my mother was the only person I had to take care of me. She was barely able to, but she sent me $20 whenever she could. Then in 2017, she was killed.
At one point, I was on the linework crew; I cut the grass for the facility. I was getting $15 every month. They would take a dollar from you — they say that’s rent for us living in prison — so it would go down to $14. Every single thing in here, you’ve got to pay for. If you don’t have the money, you’re going to go without. Soap, deodorant, toothpaste — all your hygiene. Sweatpants, sweaters. If you don’t buy your own shoes, you’ve got to be in the rain or snow with hospital crocs.
I got in a fight, and they locked me down in the hole. I’ve been in this hole for more than two years now. You lose your job when you’re here. You sit in the room 24 hours a day. The only time they let us out is to go to the shower. We don’t go outside. If you don’t have money to buy your own TV or radio, you’re just sitting in a cell looking at the wall all day. I have nothing. That’s what drives people crazy.
I miss the juvenile jail that I was at before I was here. There, you didn’t have to pay for anything. They give you all your hygiene. They give you sweatpants and a sweater. In the adult facility, they’re supposed to give you a state toothpaste and an itty bitty toothbrush the size of your pinkie finger. They’re either always out of it or they don’t bring it. When we shower, if you don’t have your own soap, they give you an itty bitty paper cup — like little med cups that you put pills in — and they fill it up with hand soap. And they expect you to be able to wash your hair and your body with it. It’s really barely enough to wash your hands with.
The money I did have, from my job and from before my mom died, they let the people come garnish my account because of court fines. On those stimulus checks, they sent me the $1,200 and the $600. They took all of that.
My account balance says $0. If I spend money I don’t have, that is listed under my balance in red. If I go to the doctor, I will owe the facility $2. I do not go, because I don’t have the $2, and I don’t want my account in red. I have lower back issues, and it causes swelling around my bones in my lower back. The pain goes down to my buttocks and the back part of my legs. It will get sometimes to the point I can barely walk. You’re going to go to the doctor, they’ll take $2 from you, and they’ll give you a generic pain pill that doesn’t work and send you back to your cell. It’s pointless. You’re better off just staying in your cell.
They charge you fines for everything. They’ve got a little ID they make us wear. If you break it or lose it, $5. If your shirt’s not tucked in, $20. You spit on the sidewalk, $20. You walk on the grass, $20. That’s how they do it in here: They give you money and figure out how to take it back from you. It would have helped me a lot to be able to save up some money. Now I’m just going to get out and go to a homeless shelter.
JOB: Bookie and Department of Transportation data entry worker
LOCATION: Florida Department of Corrections
MONTHLY INCOME: $24.30 from his prison job; $173.25 worth of commissary items from his side hustle as a sports bookie; and $100 from his parents to cover phone calls home.
I sit in a dark room typing license plate tags into a computer all day long for the Florida Department of Transportation. You know how fines and bills are sent to people who unlawfully pass through tollbooths without first paying for this passage? Little known fact: In the state of Florida, it’s actually inmates who identify and verify these tags — including me. Isn’t that bizarre? Killers, robbers and dope dealers ratting on people who speed through tollbooths. Just know that if you’re ever in Florida and you speed through a tollbooth, I truly apologize for the ticket that you’ll be receiving in the mail.
You’re expected to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week, all for a whopping 20 cents an hour. On top of this, there’s an hourly quota of license plate tags that you’re expected to reach. If you can do this adequately enough on a consistent basis, then you’ll be eligible for a raise every six months. The raise is (drumroll, please) … a nickel. You can get a nickel raise every six months up until you reach the maximum threshold of 55 cents per hour. Breaking it down, you have to work for them for a minimum of three and a half years before you can reach this Class A pay-grade. I’d like to point out that a single ramen noodle soup costs 65 cents on the canteen, and the price is steadily rising. You can work all day and barely have enough to put together a decent meal.
For my part, I “live off the land.” That’s what you call it when you’re able to hustle up a living without ever needing to hit the canteen window. I take pride in being able to take care of myself in this constricted, limited environment. I refuse to be a burden and ask for any help from the outside.
I’m a prison bookie. Like a personal Las Vegas for people willing to try the odds. I call my mom up, and she looks up the spreads for each game on VegasInsider.com. I follow Las Vegas numbers and stick by them faithfully. Vegas isn’t in business for soups and chips. They do it to pay the bills and send their kids to college and leave behind a will and all that. So their numbers absolutely have to be on point.
Each week I make a master sheet, which I post in the dayroom. It has all the games being played that week, and a list of things people can bet on — like, if the total score in a particular game will go over a certain score or under a certain score. So people are betting if they say, ‘I like the score to go over 47,’ or ‘I like it to go under 43.’ Or if one team beats the other team by a certain number of points — like, Atlanta to beat Buffalo by 14 points — or which will be the first team to score.
You have to choose at least four — that’s called a “four-pick” — and if you’re right about all four, it’s 10-to-1 odds. So if someone put a tuna up on a four-pick, a tuna is worth $3, they get $30 worth of commissary back. If any one of those loses, it kills the whole thing. It doesn’t matter if the other three came through, you still get compensated nothing. A five-pick is 15-to-1 odds, a six-pick is 25-to-1 odds, and so on.
Certain items, like cookies and chips, we call that “pretty money.” They’re more desirable. So they’re worth more on one of my tickets.
The odds are always in the house’s favor. So each week I am left with a lot of commissary. I save some for myself. The rest, I sell.
For that, people pay me through a Cash App account. I have my mother manage my funds. I’ll ask her, ‘I’m expecting this, has this come through?’ For canteen bags, it’s times one-and-a-half. If they send me $50, I’m going to give them $75 worth of canteen. They go through me and get a better value.
This season, I’ve sent home about $800. Technically, it’s against DOC policy. We’re not supposed to be gambling, bartering canteen items. But as long as nobody is getting stabbed over unpaid debts, they’ll turn a blind eye.
You could say, ‘Oh yeah, put them in a cell and lock them down, they deserve that.’ At the end of the day, we’re going to find whatever little freedom there is, use our human ingenuity to get what we need. If we’re going to be living in hell, we might as well make ourselves comfortable.
Courtney Sargent, 37
JOB: Cook, cleaner
LOCATION: Ramsey Unit, Rosharon, Texas
MONTHLY INCOME: $0
Mostly I have worked as a cook in my 15 years in Texas prisons. Since I have a culinary art degree and a lot of experience in the restaurant industry, the administration loves putting me in the officers’ dining room. But because I always put on weight, I made them take me out. Now I just clean everything — whenever they need me, wherever they need me. I’m the go-to guy now.
Texas doesn’t allow inmates to make any money, even though they make plenty of money from our slavery. Just because we’re in here doesn’t mean the bills or our responsibilities stop. When I send money to the outside world, it’s for charity and my children and to help my mother. I make money by cooking for people. I charge $10 for cakes, $5 for an enchilada plate, $20 for fiesta platters and $15 for Cajun platters.
There are a lot of small hustlers in here. They wash clothes for about 25 cents an item. People make soap bars out of little bars of hotel soap. The soap is 50 cents a bar. File legal papers. That’s anywhere from $20 to $200. To beat someone up costs between $50 and $100. Sex is also $50 to $100. You can also pay anywhere from $15 to $100 for a political service. This could be a person who needs a case thrown out, a move of housing, or some other favor. You have to pay somebody who has juice — pull — with the laws who watch us.
My family and friends send me money and food packages. If not for that, I’d starve. They don’t feed us very well. For example, today’s breakfast was a boiled egg and a peanut butter sandwich. Lunch was one small bean burrito, beans and corn. Dinner was a baloney sandwich, applesauce, overcooked vegetables. For a grown working man, this is not enough. On weekends, there are only two meals a day: breakfast and dinner. For people who have no family or friends, it is heartbreaking.
Money buys food. Money buys books and magazines. Money buys friends in prison. Money also buys protection from rape, assault and shit detail.
Imagine being hungry, watching people around you eating commissary food items because somebody loved them enough to send them support, while nobody loved you enough to send you anything.
Then imagine you’re big and strong, broke and hungry. And here’s this little guy, with family who loves him, who gets lots of food and mail. What happens? One becomes prey, the other a predator.
Valerie Stanton, 47
JOB: Stylist and party planner
LOCATION: Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, Wetumpka, Alabama
MONTHLY INCOME: Officially, $0. Unofficially, $50-60 worth of commissary items and food.
I am the lead stylist/trainer/inventory support specialist in our prison’s salon, which is called “Badd ‘n Boojee.” Although I do not charge people for appointments, several of my regulars tend to bless me with commissary items as a tip in appreciation for not being put on the 6 to 8-week waiting list. I try to show my appreciation by sliding them into the salon when I can.
I sometimes do hair on the weekend in the dorm, for special occasions and visits only, in which I charge from $3.00 to $6.00 worth of commissary items, depending on the style or cut. Doing hair is also how I pay for my laundry to be done twice per week. I am also very creative and make unique gift bags/boxes for people as well as greeting cards, banners, photo albums, and birthday/special occasion decorations.
There are only two paid jobs at Tutwiler: one is the Alabama Correctional Industries Clothing Factory, a.k.a. “the honorary slave camp.” When I worked there for almost four years, the starting pay was only 15 cents per hour. You can earn up to a whopping 10 cents per hour yearly raise, depending upon how much butt you kiss or how much slave labor you provide the company. The other is the ADOC Commissary, where you either work in the canteen, the snack line, or both for only $3.00 per day.
In addition to doing hair, I sometimes cook for others in order to provide a meal for myself. Oftentimes, they will provide all the ingredients for me to cook, and I get a plate as payment for my services. I’ve also planned and catered birthday parties for $10 a plate, plus all the leftover ingredients.
Recently we had a birthday party with 28 people, and we made a menu of rib sandwiches, baked beans, macaroni and cheese and cold pasta salad. I’ll issue out a list of things people have to order from the commissary or the snack line. The barbecue rib sandwiches cost about $4.80. We cut those in half, so we only needed 14. For baked beans, we needed buckets of chili from the snack line, which cost $2.30 each. The cups of barbecue sauce, packs of sugar and onions we had to borrow from the kitchen. Brown sugar we had to borrow from the kitchen. Macaroni noodles and butter were borrowed from the kitchen. Well, not really “borrowed.” “Re-allocated.” We remove it from the kitchen, and it goes to the people. They’ll also hire me to make decorations: banners, ceiling hangers, tablecloths, placemats. These can run anywhere from $15 to $40, depending on what they want. I can get poster board and colored pencils from the commissary. One time we did a Gucci theme. One time, the girl loved Sprite, so we made everything green.
Occasionally, when I swallow my pride and break down and ask them, my family sends me money. It is a hardship for my only daughter, who is 23 and has a one-year-old son. So I never ask my daughter for anything, except to maybe add a few dollars to my phone every now and then, so I can check on her and my grandson. Which is why I go as long as I can, hustling to get the things I need before I break down and ask anybody for anything. You learn to do whatever you can to get by.
Richard Spillane, 61
JOB: Building sanitation worker
LOCATION: East Jersey State Prison, Woodbridge, New Jersey
MONTHLY INCOME: $15
My official job is essentially a sinecure. The prison doesn’t have enough jobs to go around, so many inmates, like me, are assigned to “building sanitation.” I clean my cell and rarely, on occasion, am called to clean something up in the unit. I haven’t pressed for a more substantial job — which would pay me more — because I need the free time to do my legal work on my case, go to the law library, and go to the yard to exercise for my health. I am paid about $27 a month, but from that, I have to repay my loans from the prison for legal photocopying and mail.
The prison charges me 10 cents a page for photocopying my legal work, and I am also charged for postage. Considering the large number of pages of my legal briefs and appendices, and the large number of copies the courts require me to serve and file, these costs really add up. And if I don’t have the money in my account to pay for photocopying and postage, the prison loans me the money. Over the last number of years, the prison has loaned me $1,165.86 for legal photocopying, and $455.85 for postage. I currently still owe $269.27 for legal photocopying, and $450.93 for postage.
Each month, I am left with $15 for “discretionary spending.” Unfortunately, items of commissary termed “discretionary” include items like toothpaste, sneakers, and boots, and other items that are actually “necessities” because the prison doesn’t provide them to us otherwise.
The prison also charges me $5 for each time I bring a medical problem to their attention, and $1 for each new prescription. It makes me think twice about asking for medical treatment.
I buy typewriter ribbons for my legal work by mail from a store. Because the ribbons for my word-processing typewriter are not standard ribbons, they charge an arm and a leg. Single use ribbons cost about $9 each. My brother bought me some ribbons about a year ago, but has indicated he will not buy me more. Plus, my typewriter is all screwed up. I don’t know what I will do if the ribbons run out before my legal appeals are over.
David DeLena, 45
JOB: Welder, GED tutor, Bible copier
LOCATION: California Institution for Men, Chino, California
MONTHLY INCOME: About $5
Every inmate is supposed to have a certain amount of state-issued clothing, and they are supposed to keep their clothing clean and decent, but the laundry system does not work here. Men who work in laundry sell laundry clothes, and I cannot get my full state issue. If a person has a job in the kitchen, they will sell the food, but this creates a problem for other inmates. We do not always get our full state issue.
Our menu is enough to keep us alive, I suppose, but never enough to supply and satisfy the appetites of grown men. How then do the incarcerated manage to provide for their need to eat, to be healthy, and to have energy for each day?
I don’t want to complain about prison. I have been in prison for 10 years, and I’ve learned to be grateful for what I do have. I don’t deserve it. I thank God for every spoon of food I have and every container of water and every night of sleep. These things are so good to me.
Did you know that it is against the rules of CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) to give other inmates any type of gift, food, clothing, hygiene or otherwise? I can’t even show my humanity in giving a soda to a friend or helping an indigent inmate. You can get written up for it, and a write-up can keep you in prison.
I had a job as a GED clerk. I taught the incarcerated students different subjects: math, social studies, science and writing. I graded all the assignments of almost 60 students for 8 cents an hour. I would get paid $9.60 for a month. The state took 50% for restitution and a 5% administrative fee, so I ended up with $4.32 a month.
After about two months, I was let go because they assigned me to a vocational welding class and the schedules conflicted. As a voc student, we don’t get paid. This was a good change for me, because I had just been accepted into a college program, and the $4.32 I was making was not sufficient to provide for all of my needs. When I had a job, I was no longer eligible to receive state-issued “indigent envelopes” and other supplies like paper and stamps.
I have taught the Bible for many years, and I am a college coordinator (not officially) but the inmates call me one because I will teach them and help them get into college. My friends always give me food and supplies. My friend Elroy gave me $30 a month for preaching. This lasted at least two years. Now I found a ministry that will pay me $1 for every chapter I write of the Bible. This is a way I can earn money without breaking any rules. The only way I’ve found so far. It takes an hour or more for a single chapter. Each chapter takes two or three hours to copy by hand, and in the end I can earn about $1,200.
My brother and sister try to send me packages when they can. A full package can run close to $200. In a package, I can buy soap, toothpaste, shampoo, and conditioner and deodorants. These usually will last about three or four months, but I will need that next quarterly package for more supplies. When I receive a package, it always builds up my morale. I feel like I went shopping at the mall. I believe packages are needful in two aspects: emotionally and physically. Physically, I need hygiene. I need body soap, shampoo and conditioner, laundry soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, etc. I need clothing. I need shorts and shirts for the summer. I need sweats and thermals for the winter. Emotionally, these things help me to feel good about myself. I can get food, too. It feels good to have some good food once in a while.
Aundra Jiles, 50
LOCATION: Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, Larned, Kansas
MONTHLY INCOME: $0; Family sends about $100 a month; 10% goes into a mandatory savings account.
I do not currently have a job. The last job I had was cleaning the cellhouse at $15 a month. But I had to go to protective custody because some people just don’t want to leave me alone. As a trans woman in prison, we are often exploited for sex. I used to get money that way, but don’t anymore. I grew up, and I don’t want any diseases. But they think you’re just there to serve their needs. Some of them were so aggressive. You say no, they get mad. One person in particular was steady harassing me because I didn’t want to be his roommate. So no, I don’t have a job right now.
I am grateful to have some support from family and friends. This money is essential and a blessing. I absolutely could not make it without it.
Everything they sell us here is designed to fail. A TV, you may have it for six months, and then it just goes out, and then you have to buy it again. I’m like, no. If it goes out, I’m not buying another TV. They have TVs in the dayroom, and that will have to do. I don’t want to keep spending money in prison. I need that money when I get out.
My most expensive item I bought lately would be a Garnier re-plumping serum to improve my skin. This cost $16.97 for a 2-ounce bottle. I buy my makeup, skin and hair items through Walmart. The only reason I get to purchase things through Walmart is because I am currently going through a gender transition.
I am glad because of course I get better products than they have at the women’s commissary, and even things they don’t get. These things had to be specially approved through a board in Topeka, Kansas, along with the warden of this facility. I had to advocate for them, and it took me 10 years. They kept saying no, but after finally getting my gender dysphoria diagnosis, everything fell into place.
I mostly buy moisturizers and scrubs, maybe a little lip gloss. Just things to make me feel good in my own skin, for my mental health. I have to see myself for who I am. And those things help. Not having money like Laverne Cox, you don’t get plastic surgeries or other things for your transition. I’m just trying to take care of myself, so I can be my best self when I get out.
Interviews and letters have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.