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Blood from a stone: How New York prisons force people to pay for their own incarceration

A study by members of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective gives important first-hand accounts of the damage done when prisons shift financial costs to incarcerated people.

by Tommaso Bardelli, Zach Gillespie and Thuy Linh Tu, October 27, 2021

Note: We are pleased to present research from members of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students. Their research, based on interviews with 51 men who have been released from the New York State prison system, provides unique, first-hand accounts of how prisons are shifting more financial costs onto people who are incarcerated.

How much does it cost to take care of basic needs in prison? Our research team at New York University’s Prison Education Program set out to find an answer to this question. We looked not just for a specific dollar amount, but also at intangible human costs.

Going to jail or prison increasingly comes with a hefty price tag for the person who is incarcerated. As states continue to cut public spending, individuals are often expected to pay money to meet their basic needs in confinement facilities. Today, for instance, most states spend less than $4 per day to feed one incarcerated person—with some states like Alabama, Kansas, and West Virginia spending less than $2 per person. Such budgets are not enough to provide healthy and nutritious meals, so most people have no choice but to purchase extra food from the commissary store and/or to rely on care packages sent from home. At the same time that public expenditures have decreased, prison wages have stagnated, and the prices of food, phone calls, and other consumer items have increased. This has resulted in a greater economic burden on those individuals and families who can manage to absorb the costs, and a “surplus” (or exacerbation) of harm and punishment for those who cannot.

Our research team recently conducted interviews with fifty-one formerly incarcerated men in New York, all of whom had been released from state prisons in the last five years. The interviews provide a personal perspective on the ideology of fiscal austerity that has become commonplace in correctional administration. The people we interviewed also shed light on a dynamic that may surprise some readers: despite the common assumption that prisons are homogenous spaces, economic hierarchies do, in fact, exist inside. Our interviewees alluded to the concept of being “jail rich”(i.e., having access to some level of financial resources), and also discussed the significant portion of the prison population that cannot afford to pay for essential goods. Our research finds that a person’s inability to absorb the cost of fiscal austerity makes them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of a prison sentence, with consequences that are likely to last well after they have left prison.

 

A basic prison budget

While it is difficult to determine exactly how much it costs to cover basic needs inside a New York State facility, most of our interviewees estimated that they needed at least $175 per month to get by (translating to a minimum budget of $2,100 per year). With that sum, they explained, people can purchase just enough commissary food to integrate the paltry meals served by the facility, while also having some left to spend on other essentials, such as clothes, personal care products, and a few phone calls to family each month.

Average annual budget

Item/Category Amount Spent
Commissary $1,249
Tobacco $257
Clothes $130
Phone/Mail $1,972
Fines $110
Total $3,718

 

Family support

Since our respondents reported making on average less than $0.25 per hour, or about $31 per month, from in-prison employment, none could reach a monthly “living wage” without regular support from friends and family. Out of the fifty-one people we interviewed for this study, only eighteen said they could count on steady financial support from their loved ones, while twenty-two said they received some support but that it was not regular and/or not always sufficient to cover basic needs. Eleven participants reported receiving little to no support during most of their sentences. The experiences of the individuals with no financial resources are discussed in the following sections.

What kind of financial support did people receive from friends and family?

Support amount/frequency Number of respondents
Received steady support 18
Received irregular/insufficient support 22
Received little/no support 11

 

Food insecurity and health consequences

Hunger was the first thing most of our participants mentioned when talking about what it was like to be poor in prison. The food provided by the prison, everybody agreed, was insufficient, unhealthy, and sometimes inedible. To get by, people who had no external support invested the little money they earned from in-prison employment in a “survival kit” consisting of peanut butter, jelly, and a few ramen soups, which they would use to integrate—or at times replace—prison meals. These individuals were more likely to report health problems such as gastrointestinal diseases, foodborne illness, and drastic weight loss, as well as frequent headaches and chronic fatigue. Tim1, who was incarcerated for seven and a half years with little family support, for instance, remembered feeling constantly hungry during his last incarceration, to the point that he was often too weak or too ill to even leave his cell:

“When I was hungry, man, I had to lay—I just got to go and lay down. Because yeah you get, I got headaches, you know? I got headaches, I got cranky, I got moody, you know? Yeah, you get real moody when you want something to eat, believe me.”

Steven, who spent thirteen years in New York State prisons, said lack of access to food caused him to miss out on the few educational and training opportunities in the prison:

“I could never accomplish much while I was in there, he explained, because my stomach was always hurting, I could never get my body physically right. I was just deteriorating, day after day.”

 

Isolation from friends and family

While all incarcerated people experience dramatic disruption of social and intimate relationships, those who are unable to have regular contact with their loved ones during their prison sentence suffer its effects more acutely. Although costs of in-prison phone calls have significantly declined over the past decade—thanks to political action by families and to rate caps introduced by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) – people who live off their wages from prison labor still cannot afford regular contact with family. Some of our participants reported speaking to family only a few times and receiving less than one visit per year during their incarceration. For many, the two free postage stamps provided by the facility each month offered the only means of communication with loved ones outside. Such an extreme and prolonged social disconnection is likely to heighten feelings of isolation and loneliness, and to negatively affects both people’s well-being inside carceral facilities and their re-entry after prison, when they must rely on family members for emotional and material support.

Monthly expenses for phone calls

Amount spent per month Number of respondents
$0 – 49 19
$50 – 99 6
$100 – 199 8
$200+ 16
N/A 2

 

Psychological consequences of prison poverty

Not being able to shop at commissary, or to regularly call home, can also affect how people experience the emotional and psychological harms of incarceration. Cooking their own meals or wearing their own clothes helps to counter some of the daily degradations of prison life. Having to continually eat unappetizing food or wear worn-out uniforms makes it harder to maintain a sense of self. Even more so than their peers, our interviewees who were indigent reported feeling stripped of their dignity and humanity by the prison system. For Steven, for instance, not being able to shop at commissary meant not just being constantly hungry, but also being unable to cook something nice on special occasions:

“I would not celebrate Thanksgiving, nor any other holiday. I don’t even celebrate holidays. I don’t celebrate New Year’s. I don’t celebrate any of that stuff, not in prison. I did no celebrating in prison. Every day was a living hell.”

For those with no access to personal resources, the inability to mitigate against material deprivation negatively affected their psychological well-being.

 

Conclusion

The carceral system has become even more unjust: incarcerated individuals have no access to gainful employment, and yet are required to pay for their basic necessities. While this system affects all incarcerated people, those who do not have the resources to cover basic needs experience its effects more acutely. Without regular access to commissary and telecommunications, people are more vulnerable to the negative health and psychological harms associated with a prison sentence. As a consequence, individuals and their families often face an impossible choice: drain the household’s resources to support their loved ones inside or leave them exposed to the most brutal forms of deprivation. This modern-day “prisoner’s dilemma” harms the well-being of the most disadvantaged people in prison and amplifies the negative impacts of incarceration far past the prison gate by draining financial resources from already vulnerable families and communities.

 

The authors are members of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students at NYU conducting research on the true costs of incarceration on families and communities in New York State.

 
 

Footnotes

  1. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of research participants  ↩

Tommaso Bardelli is a member of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students. Zach Gillespie is a member of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students. Thuy Linh Tu is a member of the New York University Prison Education Program Research Collective, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students.



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