Chapter 9

Money in Prison and Prison Money

People may not realize the need for money in prison.  Although a person can survive without supplemental income from family and friends it is a sparse existence.

It is a serious offense for inmates to possess cash.  Instead money is electronically credited to a commissary account.  This money can be used to make phone calls, use e-mails, purchase stamps, buy commissary items, and request Special Purchase Orders (SPO) to buy books or hobby craft materials.

Money will not be accepted at visitation.  Although the BOP states they will not accept money at self-surrender, they usually do.

Money can be added to an inmates account through the mail or Western Union.

Mail in Money

When mailing money it’s quickest to use a postal money order.  Checks or other forms of money orders can take 2-4 weeks to get credited to the account.

                        Des Moines Mailing Address

                        And how to make sure it get credited properly



Western Union

Western Union charges a fee but the money is credited to the account in a few hours.  There are 3 ways:


Online you can send money through Western Union at their website,  Once there you need to go to “Make a Payment” not “Send Money.”  Select the state you are sending money from.  Then select the “Correctional Facility” option at the bottom of the short list.  Selecting Correctional Facility will bring up an option to select a correctional facility, select Federal Bureau of Prisons on that list.  If you are a new customer, fill out your personal information, then enter your credit card or debit card information, and lastly enter the inmate’s name and number.

Over the Phone

Western Union’s toll free number is 1-800-325-6000.  If it is your first time calling Western Union, a representative will come on the phone and collect your personal information; name and billing information, then request the information of the inmate, be sure to have their number ready. The billing city is always Washington D.C.  They will then send you to an automated process that will request your credit card information.  After that the representative will come back on the phone, confirm your information and then transfer the money.  It usually takes four hours after you finish the phone call to show up on the inmate’s account.



You will need to use the Quick Collect Sheet at any local Western Union booth.  Remember to include the inmate’s first and last name, plus their number.  You are sending the money to Washington D.C.  FBOP.   Western Union stores does not accept credit cards, but does accept debit cards.

Why Do I Need Money?

The BOP provides necessities like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and razors.  The soap is harsh. The razors pull and drag rather than cut. The toothpaste is from China and tastes terrible and the toothbrushes are very flimsy.  In all probability you’ll eventually want to buy commercial quality products at the commissary.


There is a maximum of $290 that can be spent at the commissary each month.  It takes several months to get all the little creature comforts with this spending cap.

Each inmate is assigned one day per week to shop.  Miss that day for whatever reason and you are out of luck until the next week.

Priority Items

Shower shoes, deodorant, and shampoo plus other toiletries need to be purchased ASAP.  Shower shoes are especially important due to the heavy use and thus unhygienic nature of the showers and bathroom area.

Leisure Attire

Thermals, sweats, gym shorts and tennis shoes are next on the list of must haves.  Sleeping in just your underwear is highly frowned upon by the other inmates. In fact, modesty is very much appreciated; no one wants to see you strut your stuff.

You’ll spend far more time in gym shorts and tennis shoes than your uniform.  Unless on duty or going to lunch most inmates are in casual attire.

 At facilities that have air conditioning you’ll want sweats and thermals while inside, even in the summer.  In theory the BOP keeps it cold to keep tempers down.  True or not there can be 30+ degrees difference between inside and out.


A radio is needed to listen to television since the speakers have been replaced with short range FM transmitters.  They do that so there can be multiple televisions in one room. This is particularly nice if you like to watch sports! Watching multiple televisions takes a little getting used to, but once mastered creates a virtually commercial free environment.

Over The Counter Medications

Medicines such as anti-diarrhea and cold medicines should be part of your locker inventory.  It is not like you can pick them up at the all-night pharmacy.

The BOP no longer provides aspirins or anti-acids.  If you suffer from heartburn or frequent headaches or aches and pains, you’ll want a healthy supply of these as well.

Washing Powders

Laundry detergent is needed if you decide to do your own laundry.  Most inmates do.  The prison laundry tosses the entire laundry bag (bag and all) in with everyone else’s. They are tossed in the dryer the same way so the clothes in the middle of the bag are rarely clean and fairly damp.

Eating In

Some inmates spend a small fortune eating out of their lockers.  Rice, meats and other assorted meals are available at the commissary.  The dining hall food is far more nutrious and does not taste bad some people just don’t want to stand in line.

Prices at the commissary are equivalent to a corner convenience store or slightly higher.  The commissary has some name brand items and some generic brands.  Each facility chooses which items to carry and it changes often.  Prices also vary from place to place.


Telephone charges can run $18 -$69 a month is you use all 300 minutes.  Local calls are 6 cents a minute while lone distance calls are 23 cents a minute.

Hints:  To save $51 a month have family get a local number cell phone.  Most national companies allow a 2nd phone for only $9.99 a month.




It cost 5 cents a minute to read or compose emails.  It cost 15 cents per page if you want to print emails.  There are some inmates who spend more than $100 a month on emails.

Job Assignments

All able-bodies inmates are required to have a job assignment.  Very few inmates work hard.  Some inmates choose positions that are busy like landscaping, while the dorm orderly positions can work as little as 15 minutes a day.

Job assignments are usually based on seniority.  You may get lucky and initially get a job to your liking or you can try to transfer to something else later.

Don’t fret over job assignments.  There really aren’t any terrible positions.  Each has its own advantages.  For example you’ll eat well if you have a kitchen job.  Dorm orderlies have a lot of free time.

How Much Do I Get Paid?

A GED tutor at one facility can make $50 a month. The same position somewhere else pays $15.

It is all calculated by the budget a facility has and the number of hours inmates are credited for actually working. The pay rate is 12 cents to 42 cents per hour.  Some facilities may only pay for the hours reasonable expected to work while other places pay for the maximum hours possible plus bonuses.

UBICOR is a totally different animal. It pays well by prison standards but for the most part the waiting list is very long.


Hustles are side services inmates provide to each other such as cutting hair or paying to have laundry done.

Strictly by the book, providing services, giving things to other inmates, or running a business in prison is prohibited.  This is one of the many rules that is largely unenforced.

This underground economy not only provides inmates with supplemental income but gives a sense of pride and purpose. Some of these hustles pay many times what BOP pays.

Black Market

Black market items like alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling and prostitution are highly profitable but they are also high risk.

One inmate had 5 days to go before being released to the halfway house,  He was caught with a cell phone. This particular inmate had recently completed the RDAP class so he was also getting an additional twelve months off his sentence.

Not only did he lose the twelve months off. He spent ninety days in the hole, transferred from the camp to a low and lost 45 days good time.  Instead of getting six months halfway house he ended up with three months.  In all, he was imprisoned almost 500 days longer! All over possession of a cell phone to talk to his girlfriend.

Most new arrivals stay away from the black market.  Some get slowly lured in for the money or the thrill.  If you have a family, think twice before dabbling in black market items and services!

Gray Market Services

There are many “prohibited” money making activities that the staff usually turns a blind eye, unless someone crosses the line or there are a lot of complaints.

Prison currency is usually in stamps or commissary items.  For larger purchases such as paintings, or expensive leather purses, they may want you to have someone send money to a family member.

Expect to pay higher prices in prison than you would for similar services on the street. But then again you are a captive audience with limited choices.  At least you are helping a fellow inmate.

Kitchen/ Food Service Warehouse

By far the best paying grey market hustle is those who boldly sneak food from the kitchen or food service warehouse.

It is not unusual to see flats of eggs (36 eggs per flat), cases of chicken, or boxes of vegetables make their way to the dorms.

The risk and degree of tolerance depends on the staff.  Some C.O.’s (Correctional Officers) will just give the kitchen help leftovers or even fresh vegetables.  It is a way to keep good help.



Cutting Hair

A hair cut at the facility barber shop is supposed to be free.  However tips are expected.

Cutting hair is lucrative, but a cut throat business.  Customers are generally loyal and not really prone to go to another Barber/Stylist.

A popular barber lives like a king and is well connected to other opportunities.

Laundry and Ironing

This is another highly profitable cut throat business with loyal followings. An established launderer can make more than a good barber but works longer. There is a constant line for the washers and dryers’ so contracting this out makes sense.


Painters and pencil drawing artists are expensive but most are amazingly good.  This is a fairly high demand service.  A life-like pencil drawing can go for more than $100.

Wood Craft/ Leather Craft

Not all Facilities have Wood Craft or Leather Craft.

From leather purses and belts to jewelry boxes, these skilled inmates do very well.  They have high expenses but a steady stream of customers.

Find unique patterns before you report then have them mailed in when you get established.


From slippers to afghans, those that know how to crochet are particularly busy for winter and Christmas.  Learn to crochet before you are to report. It passes time and can be done in your cell/cube.


Generally sewing is not a highly profitable business but there is a need, even if it is just for you.

Electronic repair

Not everyone has the skills or tools to solder.  If you can do basic radio and headset repairs inmates will beat a path to your cube/cell.


Don’t make the mistake of doing this on the cheap of free.  From e-mail to legal correspondence there is high demand for touch typists.


You don’t need a license to hang out a shingle for inmates.  If you can crack-a-back, you’ll have plenty patients. (And a full Locker!)

Locker Store

Locker stores sell sodas and candies from their dorm/cell block.  Most charge 2-for -1. So if you borrow one candy bar the storekeeper will expect you to pay them back two on your commissary day.

Stores are quite profitable if you are good at bookkeeping and collections.

Stores provide much needed service.

Cube cleaning

This service is good for neat people.  Some inmates can generate a comfortable, steady income.

Other Hustles

These are only a few of the side businesses.  If you can get good at any of these (or many others) you can save your family the need of sending in money.  A little bit here and there makes a big difference to them.


Chapter 8

Chapter 10

Table of Contents

Glossary Terms