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Inside the Micro-Economy of a U.S. Federal Prison

Prisoners in striped apparel sitting at tables playing cards.
Photo Andrew Burton/Getty


Inside the Micro-Economy of a U.S. Federal Prison

Here is how it works—the real money end of prison is pretty straightforward and simple. We all have “books”, which are a log of the money that has been paid on our accounts to purchase items in the prison commissary. Anyone who has our full name and prison number can give us money through Western Union or by mailing money orders to the central processor in Iowa.

Once an inmate receives the funds, there are than a bunch of things they can spend the money on. The first purchase most of us will make is a pair of tennis shoes ($75), sweat pants and shirts (beginning at $20 each). You can also buy items like a 6-pack of soda ($3.05) or non-brand name drugs like aspirin ($10). Everything is more expensive than the going rate outside, but we buy what we can, these are simple pleasures—bags of rice, cookies, donuts, meat logs, mackerel, tuna, candy, chips and other processed snacks.

You also need to use this money to purchase time to use the prison email system, Corrlinks ($0.05/minute) and time for phone calls ($0.23/minute up to $1.10 for Mexico, Canada or other international calls).

So that is how dollars are spent, but everyone has a hustle.

Doing wash, shining shoes, ironing clothes, making cards, doing tattoos, stealing kitchen food for resale, smuggling tobacco, porn and drugs… wherever there is demand the supply finds its way in. Even sex can be bought and sold, as can favors of many kinds.

Contraband, favors and services are all available for sale outside the commissary.

Here is how that works: let’s say someone irons your shirt so you can go to see a visitor, he will charge you a mackerel ($1.50). You make sure to buy some mackerel when you do your weekly shopping and pay your bills. The trade is made in value exchanged. Big favors mean big purchases. Little favors mean small trades.

Sports are also a huge opportunity to make some money; there are huge gaming opportunities inside prison—football, baseball, basketball… I have even heard of card games where several hundred dollars often exchanges hands.

Now, for the larger amounts of money, many inmates figure a way to have their friends or family on the outside send the money tot the friends or family of those they owe the money. Drugs, gaming or owing money in prison for whatever reason. These types of deals also seem to be the driving force behind most of the trips to the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU, aka “the hole”). This often means they go to the Correctional Officer (C.O.) and turn them self in for one thing or another to put off paying their debt or taking a beating. Often they can get enough money on their books to clear their accounts by the time they get out of the SHU.

Now for the disclaimer: I have no personal knowledge of any of these activities, but am told by many old timers that is how it works. Most of us though are just lucky to have someone out there giving us money and helping us survive inside.

You can write to Eddy Lepp at:

Charles Edward Lepp 90157-011
FCI La Tuna
Federal Correctional Institution
PO Box 3000
Anthony, Texas 88021

Check out Cannabis Now Issue 10, on stands February 2014 to learn more about Pot POWs and how you can help.

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