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Little is free in prison — Here are the various ways incarcerated people make money


There's this saying you often hear about prison - at least you get three hots and a cot - meaning your meals and your bed are provided. But in most cases, the food is terrible, and it's often not hot. And prisons frequently charge money for a lot of other things that you and I might think of as essential - things like soap, toothpaste, paper to write letters. And so many prisoners can barely afford to pay for those things. Journalists at The Marshall Project wanted to know how incarcerated people actually make money while in prison, and they corresponded with dozens of people in prison now to paint a picture of their finances. Beth Schwartzapfel wrote about their findings, and she joins us now. Welcome.

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. OK, so I gave a few examples already. But can you just tell us, like, in general - what do incarcerated people need money for?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Incarcerated people need money for just about everything that people who aren't incarcerated need money for. So for instance, when you hear the phrase, three hots and a cot - right? - you think, like, OK, at least they don't have to pay rent. But in some states, they actually are charged for room and board.


SCHWARTZAPFEL: Yeah. They're not paying the kind of rent that, you know, people on the outside are paying, but even a dollar taken off of their paycheck adds up to quite a lot. They're paying for food. Many, many people we corresponded with say that the food is, in one man's words, not fit for a dog. And another person we spoke to told us that it's not even enough to meet the caloric needs of a grown man. So a lot of people have reported that they need to supplement their food at the commissary.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: But those are just the basics. So for instance, we spoke to a number of people who don't get shoes. Unless they want to wear the hospital Crocs that they're issued, they have to purchase things like sneakers and boots. And these were prisoners in states that are snowy and cold.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about just what kind of money you can make in prison, especially if you are not someone who is getting money sent to you from the outside. The people whose stories you told - I mean, they do a variety of work while incarcerated. Can you just give us an idea of what some of the more, quote-unquote, "official" jobs are that are available to incarcerated people?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: What surprises a lot of people is that almost everything that makes a prison run is done by prisoners. So prisoners cook the food, serve the food, mop the floor, do the laundry. I went for a prison visit a couple of weeks ago where you had to take a shuttle from the main building to the building where the visitation was, and that shuttle was driven by a man in orange. So pretty much every task, except for security - you know, they do all of the maintenance that helps the prison run.

CHANG: And even though their compensation varies, none of these jobs even remotely approach minimum wage. Can you give us an idea - what kind of money are we talking about here?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Typically, pennies on the hour. The ACLU recently did a survey of all 50 states, and the average wage ranged from 13 cents to 52 cents per hour. So the max average wage was 52 cents per hour.

CHANG: Right. And let's place that figure side-by-side with the price of what some of these items they may have to buy cost - right? - like toothpaste or soap, paper. What are generally the prices of things like that in prison?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: So one sort of very common purchase is a package of ramen noodles, which we think of as very...

CHANG: Cheap.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: ...Cheap food, right? And it's cheap to a certain extent, right? But if the commissary charges 35 cents for a packet of ramen noodles and folks make 20 cents an hour, it would take them more than an hour to afford a single packet of ramen noodles.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: And that's not even very filling.

CHANG: Right. So this is why many incarcerated people turn to side hustles. Like, your sources told you about cooking on the side, preaching, haircuts. Can you talk about some of this other work that they go and find themselves to get paid?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: One of the things I was struck by in reporting this piece is just - people's ingenuity is amazing. I was just so moved by how much people will make something out of nothing. So one of the women we talked to is sort of a party planner. So if somebody has a birthday party coming up, they'll come to her, and they'll think of a theme, and she'll use cardboard and colored pencils from the commissary to design signs according to that theme. So, like, one girl loved Sprite, she said, so they made all the signs in green.

But everything from that to - you know, a lot of prisoners are functionally illiterate, and so people will pay other people to read their letters for them or to write letters for them. We have a woman who works in the official state salon at her prison, so she can't charge for the haircuts. Those are supposed to be free. But people will, quote, "tip" her so that they don't have to wait on a long - you know, weeks-long line for a haircut.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: And so they'll give her some commissary items or something as a tip.

CHANG: And, of course, there's a darker side to this, too, right? Like, some people feel forced to sell sex or sell drugs.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Yeah. I mean, just about everything you can think of is worth something in prison. I mean, the overdose rates in prison have been skyrocketing in the last few years, and that's because people buy and sell drugs. And in prison, you're so desperate that you'll take whatever you can get your hands on. You know, friends will spray a piece of paper with something, and people will sell it and smoke it. Yeah, people will sell sex.

One gentleman made us a list of things that he's heard of people buying and selling, such as - you can hire somebody to beat someone else up for you. You can hire somebody to put in a word to the warden with you. You know, if you have in with some of the correction officers or with the warden, that's worth money, and people will pay for that.

CHANG: Yeah. Is there any particular story from anyone you interviewed that has stayed with you?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, there are so many. One gentleman I spoke to - he actually got the government stimulus check, which was the first time he'd received outside money the entire time he was incarcerated. He said, I sent a bunch of it home to save. I sent some of it to my kids. I tried to be really good. He's like, but I will admit - I splurged on some ice cream and some chips and some candy. He said, it's the first time I've had snack food in 10 years, and it felt so good. It was remarkable how much the little things mean, you know, when you've been deprived of them for so long.

CHANG: Yeah. I'm wondering, you know, this drastic underpaying or, in some cases, not paying of prisoners for labor - are there any efforts right now to require some kind of minimum wage when incarcerated people do work?

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up because one thing that shocks most people is that, if you read the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, there is an exemption for prisoners who are convicted of a crime.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: So people in prison are the only people in this country who are constitutionally allowed to be held as slaves. And that's kind of the ground that a lot of this stands on, legally speaking. There was one court case quite some time ago - I think it was in the early '90s - where a court ruled that, in fact, prisoners were subject to minimum wage. It was appealed, and the Office of the Inspector General did this research. And there was this very telling quote in that report where it said, essentially, that prison administrators felt that if they had to pay prisoners minimum wage, that the entire prison system as we know it would collapse.

And I don't think that's an overstatement because - think about it. If we had to pay all of them minimum wage - you know, multiply that by multiple millions of people. I mean, it's - you can't do it. And so it sounds histrionic, but it's not untrue that, if prisoners weren't paid pennies on the hour, then the whole system would collapse. There's just no way to do it because they're the ones doing all the work.

CHANG: Beth Schwartzapfel of The Marshall Project, thank you so much for joining us today. This was fascinating.

SCHWARTZAPFEL: Oh, thank you for having me. No, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.