We asked people in prison to track their earning and spending — and bartering and side hustles — for 30 days. Their accounts reveal a thriving underground economy behind bars.
The Marshall Project reports
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, 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 — most 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.
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