Sunday, June 2, 2013

Federal Prison Economics 101: The Basics

The federal prison economy pretty much reflects the way things work in the real world. Except that it's just that: a reflection. Everything's a little blurred around the edges and illusory. On the other hand, there's nothing quite like a little time in prison to make you realize just how much a fiat currency -- like the US dollar -- is based on faith and cooperation to begin with. A little rocking of the boat and all hell breaks loose.

The prison economy has two distinct bases: "outside" finance and "inside" finance. In this post, we'll take a look at the former. I'll follow up with a look at the inside economics of prison camp in my next entry.

Where Does It Start?
The prison economy has to start somewhere, and for all intents and purposes, it begins with our family and friends. You all "put money on our books" -- i.e., make a deposit in our Bureau of Prisons (BoP) inmate trust account -- by sending a money order or wiring funds to the BoP lockbox facility in Des Moines. After it's processed, the funds are then available to us:  for use at the commissary; to purchase educational or craft materials; to downloand songs for MP3 players; for medical or dental co-pays; or, in large chunks, to make payments toward fines, criminal restitution and child support. Most importantly, for many, the funds were used to pay for phone calls and email minutes.

The other source of income that inmates receive is from prison "jobs". In some cases, where a facility has a Unicor operation -- a manufacturing arm of the BoP that makes chairs, desks, file cabinets, bed frames, plastic spoons, etc., to be used in government agencies like the BoP itself -- inmates can make several hundred dollars per month. Where I was, FPC Duluth, anyone earning more than $30 per month for his job (about 30 hours per week) was "prison rich". I made around $18 per month cleaning the bathrooms in our dorm. 

That being said, it's not like we really had to work very hard; nor did we exactly have bills to worry about. The wages we earned were simply a little extra to spend on the email terminals and a subject about which to piss and moan -- probably, the most popular prison camp pasttime.

For most, camp wages are not a major source of income. At camp, the majority of US dollars comes in from friends and family. Others, however, don't use -- or need -- US dollars to make a living in federal prison. They rely, instead, on the facility's "inside" economy, which a future post will examine a little more closely.

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