In some cases, inmates need money in jail because state regulations require them to cover the costs of basic living items. Inmates also use money to gain access to certain personal items, sometimes in secret or against prison rules.
Basic Living Essentials
Providing basic living items like towels, linens and pants to inmates is a major expense for taxpayers. Some city, state and county prisons mandate that prisoners pay for or reimburse the cost of these basic items to minimize the burden on taxpayers.
In one particular prison in Tennessee in 2013, a pair of pants cost $9.15 and a blanket cost $6.26. Toilet paper and towels are other personal care items inmates pay for in some prisons.
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Inmates sometimes use their financial assets to pay guards or other inmates for extra perks while behind bars. For example, selling cell phone time to inmates is big business in some prisons, according to a Business Insider article. Some inmates use the phones to call friends or family, while others run their own businesses by paying for the actual phones and reselling time to other prisoners. Extra free time and pleasure items such as cigarettes are other items inmates buy.
Inmates may also have the ability to buy luxury items. Digital music players and downloads, along with e-messaging services, are among the technology extras inmates can purchase in some prisons.
Prisons have commissaries or on-site stores where inmates can buy food, coffee, snacks, personal supplies and other treats that improve the quality of their stays. These types of upgrades are worth the cost for inmates that have the financial resources and don't enjoy the typical prison meals.
Even when inmates aren't required to pay for personal care items in prison, they may have an incentive to earn money. People with families on the outside sometimes choose to work in prison labor programs to earn very low daily wages. They use the money to help support families or children left to fend for themselves while the inmate is behind bars.
Inmates may also save some of their earnings during prison to help with starting a new life after jail. States and facilities rarely offer financial assistance after release.