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What People Really Make (and Spend) Behind Bars

CHOWCHILLA, CA - MARCH 02: Valley State Prison inmate Will Caldwell cuts the hair of a prison employee during a cosmetology class at Valley State Prison on March 2, 2017 in Chowchilla, California.
Justin Sullivan
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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 and hygiene supplies. Many basics that most people regard as necessities, such as deodorant and shampoo, are often only available to people who can afford them.

But earning enough to afford these essentials from a prison job is nearly impossible: The average prison wage maxes out at 52 cents per hour, and many people make much less. In at least six states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — most prisoners aren't paid at all for their labor.

To make up for paltry wages, people in prison often take part in a thriving underground economy of side hustles, such as bartering stamps or commissary items for everything from hand-drawn greeting cards to legal help.

The Marshall Project recently asked several incarcerated people to log the money they made and spent in a month, and to describe how they navigate the unique challenges of prison economics. Below are three of their stories.

Interviews and letters have been condensed and edited for length and clarity. Read the full story at The Marshall Project.

"FUGEE*," 26

Job: Department of Transportation data entry worker

Side hustle: Bookie

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.

*We're using Fugee's nickname because the hustle he describes is against the rules and could result in punishment or loss of privileges.

I sit in a dark room typing license plate tags into a computer all day for the Florida Department of Transportation. You know how fines and bills are sent to people who unlawfully pass through tollbooths without 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, 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. 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 environment. I refuse to be a burden and ask for 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.

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 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. 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?"

This season, I've sent home about $800. Technically, 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.

VALERIE STANTON, 47

Job: Stylist

Side Hustle: 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 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.

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 the ingredients, and I get a plate as payment. 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. 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. 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. 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 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.

RICARDO FERRELL, 64

Job: Prisoner observation aide, helping to monitor incarcerated men under suicide watch; Reading and writing tutor.

Side Hustle: none

Location: Gus Harrison Correctional Facility, Adrian, Michigan

Monthly income: $250-$350

I was carefully selected for POA, or 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 is 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 — not fit for a dog, seriously.

Recently, the commissary prices have been significantly raised. For example, 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 AM yesterday morning. Washed up. Did my other work assignment real quick. 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.

Most of these guys are going to get out of here. 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." 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. Not only do I help these individuals, 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.

The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and become a member.

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Beth Schwartzapfel
The Marshall Project
Lawrence Bartley
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