It might seem that prisoners have no need of money. They pay no rent and their meals are provided for free. A few other necessities, such as soap and toilet paper, are also provided without payment or may be available on request. Nevertheless, each prison has a store, known as the ‘canteen’ or ‘commissary,’ where a variety of toiletries, snacks, and over-the-counter medications and also stamps can be purchased.
It is possible to survive without using the canteen, but access to the canteen makes prison life a little less unpleasant than it would be otherwise. For example, those who can buy soap at the canteen do not have to wash themselves with state-issued soap that will not even make a bubble and leaves behind a greasy feeling (many of us still use the state-issued soap to wash our clothes). But above all, use of the canteen enables a prisoner to supplement and enliven an otherwise meager and monotonous diet.
Those prisoners who have money to use the canteen have accounts that are charged accordingly. Most such prisoners owe their canteen access to the generosity of friends and relatives who periodically pay money into their accounts. Only a few have their accounts credited with pay for work they do. That is not because only a few prisoners work. It is because only a few are paid for their work.
Except when they are in hospital or solitary confinement, prisoners are required to work, either inside or outside the prison grounds. They do not get to choose the kind of work they do. A prisoner must work where his Classification Team dictates. And most prisoners are paid nothing for their work. For example, the Florida Department of Corrections provides prisoners to the Florida Department of Transportation to work without pay along roads and highways picking up trash.
A small proportion of prisoners in Florida are allowed to do paid work for a private company called Prison Reform Industries Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE). PRIDE pays its prisoner laborers 20 cents per hour for work such as welding and making license plates for cars and trucks. These are the only paying jobs currently available to prisoners in Florida. Prisoners can work their way up the pay scale to 55 cents per hour; this takes at least three years, usually four or five.
Officially PRIDE employs prisoners for the purpose of ‘training.’ In 2017 PRIDE ‘trained’ 3,502 prisoners across the Florida prison system. On November 30, 2017 the FDOC prison population was 96,639. So a mere 3.6% of prisoners in Florida had a paid job working for PRIDE.
The prices charged at canteens in Florida prisons (except the private for-profit prisons) are set by Trinity Services Group, which has a contract with the Florida Department of Corrections to stock the canteens. I sent Stephen the current official list of prices charged by the canteen at Union Correctional Institution and he compared a sample of them with prices of the same goods at well-known stores on the outside. While he found comparable prices for some goods, prices for others showed mark-ups of up to or even over 50%. Here are some examples:
A 12.5 oz. bottle of VO5 Extra Body Shampoo costs $2.00, but is on sale at CVS for $1.49.
TRIM nail clippers cost $1.82, but are on sale at Walmart for $1.24.
A Snickers or Twix candy bar costs $1.49, but is on sale at Target for 99c.
A 1.75 oz. bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos costs $1.08, but is on sale at Walmart for 66c.
An important item for many prisoners is Maruchan Ramen Noodles, which are sold in 3 oz. (85 gram) cellophane packages together with portions of seasoning powder for 70 cents each. Twenty-four of these same packages are sold at Walmart for $3.88, i.e., just over 16 cents each. The same number of packages costs a prisoner $16.80. Following demonstrations against this 400+% mark-up by prison activist groups and prisoners’ families (who foot most of the bill), Trinity Services Group reduced the price by a nickel to 65 cents.
A complaint also led to an improvement in the provision of toilet paper. A single roll of toilet paper is supplied to each prisoner once a week. It used to be the case that any additional toilet paper could only be purchased at the canteen. Then, a couple of years ago, a prisoner wrote to a state senator in Miami complaining about the matter, prompting the senator to make a tour of prison facilities. As a result, toilet paper is now available upon request from the officer's station in the cellhouse itself. Toothpaste and toothbrushes too are now distributed in that way. A prisoner can also obtain a painkiller (Ibuprofen or non-Aspirin Tylenol) or some sort of anti-acid tablet for indigestion at eight-hour intervals throughout the day from the guard on duty.
Another purpose for which prisoners may need money is legal action. Prisoners have the right to go to court, but even if they act pro se (i.e., represent themselves rather than hiring an attorney), as almost all of them do, this entails considerable expenses. In Florida, for instance, it now costs $425 to file for compensation for deliberate neglect of medical needs. If the claimant hires a 'jailhouse lawyer' -- a fellow prisoner who has taught himself law and acquired the ability to draft legal documents -- then that will also cost him money, albeit much less than hiring a 'real' lawyer. In practice, therefore, the only prisoners who are in a position to exercise their formal right to take legal action are those lucky enough to have friends and/or relatives able and willing to bear the associated costs.
It may be advantageous to hire an attorney, especially as prosecutors and many (though not all) judges are inclined to dismiss suits from prisoners acting pro se out of hand as 'frivolous' without bothering to look seriously into the substance of the matter. Some lawyers working for organizations concerned with prisoners' rights will accept cases without payment, but they are swamped with applications, so the chance of any individual prisoner obtaining such aid is very small. Other lawyers willing to accept prisoners as clients are very few and far between. Most lawyers are unwilling to take a prisoner's case on the basis of getting paid only if the case is won, because they are well aware that prisoners' cases are almost always lost, even with a lawyer. A lawyer may accept a case if the prisoner -- again, this usually means his friends and/or relatives -- pay a substantial retainer, but as the lawyer does not believe that success is at all likely he or she may never get round to doing any real work on the case.