We often hear of the exorbitant costs to operate prisons. State budgets are stretched thin and perpetually strained in order to incarcerate tens of thousands of people, for many years at a time. But other costs are absorbed by the casualties of incarceration that often go unreported. Yes, the families pay a heavy price to ensure their loved ones behind bars can have a “comfortable” existence during the years they’re incarcerated.
When an inmate is indigent (in the state of Oregon anyway), he or she will be provided baking soda to brush their teeth, a toothbrush, small bars of soap, and shower shoes. They are also given two envelopes per month to write family and friends. Obviously this is the bare minimum on which one can get by, but most inmates do not live this way.
I am grateful to be incarcerated in a state that “rewards” us (points that are converted into money because technically they can’t “pay” us) for working; however, the highest paying jobs (I have one as a GED tutor) yield approximately $75 a month. Most jobs average between $30 – $40 a month. Our canteen items are marked up exponentially. For instance, one of the highest selling items — instant Taster’s Choice coffee (8 oz) — goes for $9.83. Other staple food items such as Top Ramen soups ($.24 each) are also marked up. Our wages, after buying soap, toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, envelopes, etc., are rapidly depleted, leaving no money left to buy food, let alone electronic items (television, radio, mp3 player) to help divert our attention from our current reality. So who do we turn to?
Our families and loved ones often feel compelled to help us through our incarceration, especially in terms of financial expenses. They know things cost, so they do what they can to help, but their bills at home don’t stop just because we came to prison and now are unable to support ourselves the way we would like. So they send hundreds of dollars throughout the year to enable us to purchase commissary items (food, shoes, electronics) that will bring us a semblance of comfort and normality. But this doesn’t even factor in the expense they pay for the most basic need that we and our families have: phone calls.
The telephone allows us to maintain the most fundamental form of communication on a regular basis with our families and loved ones, yet this turns out to be the most expensive cost of prison for families. They are forced to pay thousands of dollars over the course of each year in order to talk to us. For instance, in Oregon we go through a company called Telmate. Our calls are $.16 per minute, and calls last thirty minutes, so a full call is $4.80. Calling once a day for thirty days amounts to $144. In a year this will cost a family member $1,728.
When inmates are written up for violations of institution rules, such as “disrespect” or “unauthorized area,” for example, there is usually a penalty fee assessed as well. The fee charged to the inmate can range from $25 – $200 (unless there are medical expenses incurred due to injuring another inmate in a fight, which can run in the thousands of dollars). If the inmate does not have adequate funds on his or her spending account, a negative balance will be reflected. Subsequently, if and when a family member or friend sends money to the inmate, the department of corrections confiscates half of that money to go toward the fines incurred by the inmate. The other half stays on the inmate’s account for spending, but if there is any amount remaining on the last day of the month, it too will be taken to go toward paying off the fine.
It pains me to think about how much innocent people are essentially forced to pay to keep in regular contact with their incarcerated loved ones and/or help them live more comfortably while here. As if life isn’t expensive enough, now they’re asked to pay even more in out-of-control fees imposed on them by the state and federal prison systems. One could make the claim that they end up paying two prices — the emotional, and the monetary cost of losing their loved ones for years.