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How Can You Earn Money in Prison?

How Can You Earn Money in Prison?

Making money is just as important to an inmate in prison as it is to someone in the free world. In addition to the “three beds for one bed,” the state also provides inmates with the absolute minimum amount of supplies — a few clothes, sheets and towels, and hygiene items. In addition to this, prisoners must rely on their own income for the items they need to survive.

Prison jobs pay pennies an hour, so most inmates rely on outside family and friends to send them money. If a prisoner has no help, he can only rely on his own intelligence and strength to barely survive.

Prisons are their own little communities with special economies among the prisoners. Currency in prisons is not paper money, but canteen items. In my experience, stamps and ramen noodles (aka “soup”) have replaced money in a prison setting.

Just like on the outside, inmates in prisons have their own income class and socioeconomic status. Some prisoners come from families or circumstances that provide them with endless money. Every week on Shop Day, these prisoners—or the “rich class”—spend the maximum amount allowed.

They have all the electronics in their bunks, they also buy tickets to fundraisers, they own multiple layers of clothing and good tennis shoes, and they never have to go to the grocery store because they always cook for themselves in their rooms.

The middle class of prison inmates sometimes get some money from friends and family. They usually spend a few dollars a week at the store, and they probably have a TV or a CD player to pass the time. They’ll also have some extra t-shirts and a pair of tennis shoes.

The poor in prison are the ones who don’t get money from anyone outside. They live on earnings from prison work, usually about $20 a month. These prisoners must have a “side job” in order to earn money and survive. A side hustle can be anything from making spirits to doing laundry or dishes for prisoners.

I would like to explain what is the prison economy to help readers better understand the answer to today’s topic. I asked my friend Mistie Vance – who is currently serving time at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe, Missouri – about this and I will share her answer below. So let’s get into today’s topic: How to make money in prison?

In this blog post, Mistie will cover the following topics:

  • Opportunities to make money in prison are limited
  • Family financial support is not always a good thing
  • Some inmates target ‘trick’ outside
  • All prisoners receive a small amount of money each month

Opportunities to make money in prison are limited

Prison is definitely one of the most humbling experiences in a person’s life – one in which you become fully aware of just how powerless you are. Opportunities to make money in prison are as limited as everything else in an institutional setting. For some, this simply isn’t an option. In such cases, people have to learn to live by a different standard than they may have been used to before incarceration.

Family financial support is not always a good thing

Prison, like anything else in life, is a unique experience for the individual. For those with understanding and supportive families, earning money is not necessary as their loved ones outside provide well.

Many prisoners receive a regular weekly or monthly sum of money from family or friends to be able to buy what they want and need from the prison mess. In some cases, this can be a good thing, especially if the person’s family is also providing support in other ways, such as making sure their loved one is supported emotionally and encouraging their loved one’s Positive life changes occur.

Nothing drives change like knowing that your loved ones are proud of you and believe in you. By the same token, I see many cases where families financially supporting their loved ones are detrimental rather than catalysts for positive change.

Some people are so absorbed in their selfish desires that they don’t care what the family does as long as they send them money. Some inmates pressured and bullied their families over the phone until they relented and sent money, using threats and coercion to get what they wanted. This can be a very sad situation.

Some inmates target ‘trick’ outside

Another way inmates get financial support from the outside world is through what they call “tricks.” These men or women send money to prisoners in exchange for some kind of relationship, usually sexual.

I have been incarcerated in women’s institutions for over a decade and I have seen hundreds of these relationships. Many men specifically contact women they find on DOC sites with the sole purpose of establishing a sexual or emotional relationship, sending money and expecting letters and calls back.

Sometimes the men women met before going to prison were liars, and women would pretend to be in a relationship for financial support. Sometimes, they even promise to create family plans for individuals once they get out of prison.

Unfortunately, subterfuge of any kind is dishonest, does not support one’s positive growth, and makes the prison experience a waste. After all, unless our thought processes change, the way we live our lives will remain the same in and out of prison.

All prisoners receive a small amount of money each month

All inmates in the correctional facility receive a small sum of money each month. For delinquent prisoners, this amount is five dollars. For individuals with a high school diploma or GED who do not owe money, the amount is $8.50. For those who do not owe money but are not educated, the amount received is $7.50 per month.

This is money received each month that can be used to buy phone time, media buys, or items in the criminal’s cafeteria. For most inmates who do not have any other income, this money is usually used to buy sanitation supplies as the facility will not provide them unless you are considered indigent and only receive an allowance of $5.00 per month.

There are certain jobs in the facility that pay, but they are only available to educated offenders. If a person owes money on their account, their earnings are automatically used to pay off the outstanding debt.

Most salary slots in prisons are quite modest, usually $15 to $30 a month, with the exception of senior salary slots which are in short supply. For those inmates who were able to secure high-paying positions, they could earn between $50 and $120 a month for factory work.

Obviously, that’s nowhere near what you’d earn doing the same job outside, but considering all of our expenses are paid here, it’s not a bad deal.

I have learned to be content in any situation. It doesn’t matter if I go to the store once a week or once a month. It doesn’t matter if I have $5 or $50. I believe in God all things work together for good to those who love Him.

Since I have no relationship with family – and no friends when I was locked up – I have been blessed to see how God always makes a way for me to have what I need. Many times, I want something.

I decided early on not to pretend to like someone for money, or to try to get money in a way that would be dishonest or hurtful. My life as a drug addict had done enough damage to people before I got locked up.

Part of believing in God is learning to give of myself to others without expecting anything in return, and in doing so, I find myself happier than ever. You do reap what you sow, both positive and negative.

Living your best life means living a happy life!

Whether you have an income or not, one of the best things about the prison experience is learning that true happiness lies not in what you have, but in what you give up. In the process of helping others, you will find that it is you who gain the most!

When you share your wisdom, your time…even your coffee…when you reach out, listen and listen, or even just a simple smile, the life you end up changing could be your own.

What side hustle would you do if you were only getting paid $5 a month? Let us know in the comments below.


Inmate essay from Mistie Vance, Chillicothe Correctional Center