By Tina Vásquez and Derek R. Trumbo, Sr. / Prism
Note for readers: Each of the incarcerated men quoted in this piece is using a pseudonym to protect against retaliation from prison officials.
The outside world may be in the grips of inflation and financial instability, but inside a Burgin, Kentucky, prison, the financial woes more closely resemble the Great Depression.
For many incarcerated inside the Northpoint Training Center, the primary concern isn’t how they will pay for gas, insurance, or even rent upon release from prison. The uncertainty they feel is far more urgent. Each day is spent worrying about how they will cover the tremendous cost of their own incarceration.
Steve works as a landscaper at the Northpoint Training Center, where he says he does his best to try to make the prison “look good.” Rain or shine, Monday through Friday, Steve spends eight hours a day mowing, hauling gravel, groundskeeping, painting, maintaining the field, laying concrete, and performing other backbreaking manual labor. For this work, he receives $1.76 a day—and there is no chance of a raise. These already meager funds rapidly dwindle once he purchases basic necessities from the prison.
“I’m scared to death about my financial future outside the fence because I can barely afford to live behind the fence,” Steve told Prism. “I don’t have anyone to take me in or help me out or anything once I’m free.”
If Steve saves every penny he earns for the next 10 months, he’ll have $350.
“That wouldn’t even pay a month’s rent at a motel when I get out,” Steve said. “In six years, I’d have $2,534.40—that’s about half of what a corrections officer makes here in two weeks. My six years of savings amounts to their two weeks of take-home pay. I may be a convicted felon, but even I’ll have to live once I’m released.”
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Steve spends between $20 and $25 each month on shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, and medicine for the migraines he suffers due to the fluorescent lights officials leave on day and night. Given the nature of his work and the poor air quality inside the prison, he must also pay out of pocket for allergy medication.
Steve is going up for parole in six years, but life beyond bars is hard to think about when even the barest of necessities eats up more than half of his prison paycheck each month.
“I’m not left with much for the future,” Steve said.
At Northpoint Training Center, the wage scale ranges from the lowest, $1.07 per day for gym workers, academic students, dorm workers, and janitors, to the highest, $2.66 a day for academic tutors, food service workers, legal library aids, and maintenance workers. When taking into account the cost of incarceration at Northpoint, which includes charges to send an email, make a phone call, or obtain “privileges” such as coffee or shampoo, it’s clear that those who spend years in prison working toward a future on the outside will leave with pennies to their name.
Most people outside the fences think that prisons supply incarcerated people with everything they need. This is patently false. Like many other prisons, Northpoint provides the bare minimum: five rolls of toilet paper, one tube of shaving cream, four razors, one tube of toothpaste, and four bars of soap for the month. Items like deodorant, shampoo, and fingernail clippers are seen as privileges and must be paid for out of pocket—often at prices that far exceed the regular cost in grocery stores.
“I just want the public to recognize that the majority of us will be released back into society,” said Mike, a former kitchen worker at the Northpoint Training Center. “Personally, I have no one outside these prison fences. I will need a lot of financial help and a miracle, as it stands right now, once I’m released. At my current state pay wages, any hope of my having a successful shot at getting myself together seems all but impossible.”
The costs associated with prisons and jails account for a significant percentage of local, state, and federal budgets. Advocates who argue for reforming the criminal legal system often focus on the price of prisons to taxpayers. Public corrections agencies cost the U.S. government more than $80 billion annually, though the number is much higher when accounting for other costly facets of the system—including policing. A 2016 report from Florida State University’s Institute for Justice Research and Development put the true cost closer to $1 trillion, accounting for the “social costs” to incarcerated people and their families and communities. On the other hand, mass incarceration is also a booming industry for the thousands of private, for-profit corporations that operate inside the prison-industrial complex.
The far more pressing conversation inside jails and prisons across the country is the cost of prison to incarcerated people, who on average make a minimum of 86 cents per day. The links between slavery and mass incarceration are evident at every turn, but perhaps nowhere are they clearer than in the labor the criminal legal system extracts from descendants of the enslaved and the pittance they receive in return. People who have spent decades behind bars face an even bleaker future.
Thomas is a senior citizen at Northpoint, and he has been incarcerated for 30 years. In less than 19 months, he’ll start life over on the outside. Lately, he said he spends a lot of time thinking about his future—and it’s not looking bright.
“People my age are focused on retirement and restructuring their 401(k) right now, and I’m worried about walking out of here with less than $100 to my name,” Thomas said.
Like many people who become estranged from their families and larger support systems due to incarceration, Thomas has no family, friends, or outside support he can rely on when his release date comes.
“Upon my release, I’ll still have many problems and obstacles to contend with,” Thomas said. “Before I can actually begin the process of building a life for myself, I’ll have to rely on food stamps, government assistance, and live in a halfway house until I get a job. Then I’ll have to save until I can afford to pay rent, buy furniture, and keep the lights on. Only then will I be allowed to leave the halfway house.”
The Prison Policy Initiative found that formerly incarcerated people are “unemployed at a rate of over 27%—higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.” People like Thomas leave prison wanting—and desperately needing—to work, but the structural barriers to employment are overwhelming, especially during the period immediately following release. There is also ample evidence that conviction and imprisonment deepen inequality. The Brennan Center for Justice found that people who have spent time in prison see their subsequent annual earnings reduced by an average of 52%, and formerly incarcerated people on average earn nearly half a million dollars less over their careers than they might have otherwise. These losses are felt most acutely by Black and Latinx people who were already living in poverty and who are disproportionately represented in the criminal legal system.
“I am not one of those guys that sits around all day doing nothing, expecting someone else to take care of me,” Thomas said. “Even here in prison, I work eight-hour days, five days a week like I would be doing on the street. The difference is that here, I make $2.66 a day doing what I could easily make $18-20 an hour doing outside the prison fences. I currently subsist on $50 a month, and there are no 401(k) plans in prison.”
And as incarcerated people age, the need for medical care only increases—and this comes with even more out-of-pocket costs. It is illegal for prisons to deny health care to people who are incarcerated. But the law doesn’t prohibit copays for medical care, so unless a medical expense is authorized by the Department of Corrections, fees and copays come directly out of a patient’s commissary account.
Mike is also strapped for cash as one of Northpoint’s lowest-wage workers. Now working as a kitchen dishwasher, he spends his days banging trays against the trash can to get the food off before he scrubs them and loads them onto a commercial dishwasher. Once clean, he stacks the trays to dry, takes out the garbage, scrubs the area for the next shift, and then washes the floor mats in the same dishwasher the prison uses to clean the trays people use for meals. It is grueling, dirty work. He makes $1.76 a day.
For people who make prison wages, expenses many consider to be minor—the cost of coffee, for example—can lead to financial ruin. Criminally low wages coupled with obscenely high canteen prices make it impossible for incarcerated people to build any sense of financial security.
“Savings?” Mike said. “What are those? I can barely afford a few bags of coffee right now. After paying the canteen $4.74 for a few 3-ounce bags of coffee that tastes like worm dirt, on the $21.40 I make a month, I’m left with less than $2.50 to my name.”
If Mike skips coffee for a few months, he’ll save $10. But this poses a larger question: Are incarcerated people entitled to any items or routines that give them even the slightest sense of normalcy?
“I don’t have to drink coffee. I know that, but it’s the one thing I can do to feel normal in this place. You know? Drink a cup of coffee when I wake up—even if it does taste like worm dirt,” Mike said.
The tough jobs incarcerated people take on in prison come with almost no immediate or long-term benefits, and they are largely robbed of engaging with any mechanisms that would make saving money easier.
“The prison says I can’t have a bank account,” Mike said. “At least not one opened by me from in here.”
Incarcerated people can name someone as their power of attorney who can then open an outside bank account in their name, but this requires extraordinary levels of trust, and building these kinds of relationships from behind bars can be hard, Mike said.
“I’d have to have someone willing to help, and finding that is like finding someone to send me money in here. I haven’t found that yet,” Mike told Prism.
Incarcerated people are also denied employment-based benefits, and employment while incarcerated does not appear in their work history with the Social Security Administration. This means their wages aren’t counted as earned income when they apply for Social Security benefits. And given their meager wages barely cover their own necessities, there’s little hope of being able to send money home to help their families, many of whom are also living in poverty.
Most people who are incarcerated are forced to work whether or not they want to because federal and state governments often require their labor. If incarcerated people refuse to work, they are often written up and denied crucial “privileges,” like visitations, good time earnings, and commissary access. Never mind that many incarcerated people are tasked with deadly jobs. Take for example California’s incarcerated wildland firefighters, who risk their lives for far less than minimum wage.
In recent years, there have been numerous lawsuits regarding the use of forced labor in prisons and immigrant detention centers.
In 2020, four men who were incarcerated in Colorado filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis, the state prison system, and the private prison company CoreCivic because they were being used as “slave labor.” So far, these lawsuits have proven to be more successful in the context of immigrant detention. In a landmark ruling in 2021, the private prison company GEO Group was ordered to pay $17.3 million in back wages to more than 10,000 immigrants who earned $1 a day while working at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. Meanwhile, in states like West Virginia, where a lawsuit was recently filed regarding the “inhumane living conditions” in correctional facilities across the state, lawmakers this month approved more than $21 million for correctional officer pay increases.
Participating in litigation is technically an option, but connecting with advocates and attorneys is difficult, and going toe-to-toe with the state is a daunting task when you’re already juggling the daily realities of incarceration and poverty. This is certainly the case for Mike, who told Prism his family can barely afford to keep a roof over their heads.
“What can I ask them to do for me?” Mike said. “I have to face the facts: I’ll be free in a few years, and it’ll take me another year or so to find my way out of the halfway house. It’s like the system is designed for me to fail.”
Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers’ rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.
Derek R. Trumbo
Derek R. Trumbo, Sr., a multiple-time PEN Prison Writing Award winner, is an essayist, playwright, and author whose writing has been featured in “The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison” (Haymarket Books, January 2022), Vera Institute of Justice’s the “Human Toll of Jail” project, and Tacenda Literary Magazine. His plans have won or placed Top 3 at the Kentucky Theatre Association Roots of the Bluegrass New Plays Festival three years running. A Madeline L’Engle/Rahman Mentorship Award prize winning essayist, Derek mentors, instructs, and facilitates writing circles with his fellow inmates to create tales which highlight the human struggle and adversity of this gift we call life.