The Costs of Incarceration: How Prison Fees Maintain the Social and Economic Order of America


When we talk about what incarceration costs, we talk about the state, the taxpayer, the number of dollars spent per prisoner. Dozens of scholars, researchers, and think-tanks come together to calculate the number of dollars each prisoner or crime costs “us” — the Vera Institute of Justice found that across the country, the average taxpayer cost was $31,286 per prisoner, per year in a study they released in 2012. The problem with these types of conversations is that they frame the incarcerated as a burden on society, they distance “us” from “them,” and they invisibilize the human beings whose lives are forever impacted by the criminal justice system.

These types of conversations, on how much public services cost taxpayers, are being held more and more often, as neoliberalism is cemented in America. Simply put, neoliberalism posits that individuals should be free, free to make decisions, free to act. This freedom, however, must come with a responsibility for themselves. The government should not act as a protector of its citizens but of their liberties to choose, purchase, and consume. Rather than devoting resources to social services, the government should focus on broadening property rights, free markets, and free trade — “a world in which individual initiative can flourish,” as professor of anthropology and geography at the the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, David Harvey writes.

In its functioning neoliberalism looks like the state slowly removing itself from regulating the market and from providing social services. Private companies can then step in to provide services like schooling, healthcare, and prisons. Neoliberalism has spurred a shift toward privatizing prison services within public facilities, to privatizing prison facilities in their entirety. Because of neoliberalism’s emphasis on individualism and the downsizing (or elimination) of social services, many of the costs of investigation, sentencing, incarceration, and parole have been transferred to the “offenders” and their families in the name of “taking responsibility,” “paying one’s debts,” and lightening the taxpayer burden.

People can now find themselves financially responsible for police transportation, booking fees, DNA testing, the use of a public defender, and multiple court fees. “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry,” a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, found that thirteen of the fifteen states with the highest prison populations charge all defendants public defender fees, regardless of their ability to pay. These fees can get up to the thousands. These fees push poor people to waive counsel, a right under the Sixth Amendment, and plead guilty, whether they committed a crime or not. In Michigan, the threat of paying the full cost of employing a public defender resulted in “misdemeanor defendants systematically waiving their right to counsel – at a rate of 95 percent in one county.” These costs act as a funnel, sending poor and working class defendants, disproportionately People of Color, into prisons.

Once people are convicted and moved from jail to prison, inmates are usually provided with the bare minimum of toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, and sometimes sanitary pads for those who menstruate. The rest must be bought from the commissary, a store within the prison that stocks selected toiletries, non-perishable food and drinks, and other approved items. The need for commissary items cannot be avoided. Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in an Illinois state prison, reported that they had to buy long underwear and boots from the commissary or risk frostbite, since they were not issued cold-weather clothing.

The commissaries are largely unregulated and outsourced to private companies. Commissary hours vary widely; they may only be open every other week depending on the prison. Their items are limited and made essentially “prisoner-proof” — bottled, canned, or boxed items are transferred into soft and transparent packaging so as to prevent prisoners from creating makeshift weapons. The engineering of such packaging is what has made Keefe Supply Company so successful, a company which currently has contracts with 800 public and private prisons and makes $1 billion each year. As a result of this deregulation and privatization, commissary prices are extremely inflated. The Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper from Jackson, Mississippi, found that “the prices of many cereals, snacks, batteries, and soap were more than four times higher than that of discount stores in the Jackson area.” The news source, Common Dreams, found that commissary prices have risen by as much as 100 percent over the past two decades.

But these prices are not inflated equally.

These costs are raced, gendered, and classed. The Clarion-Ledger also found that the Qur’an, the central religious text of Islam, was being sold for $58.95 in Mississippi prisons where inmates could obtain free Bibles as donated by local faith groups. The Qur’an can be found on Amazon for thirteen dollars. This burden disproportionately affects People of Color, since the majority of Muslims in America are Black and Brown people. And the cost is far more than financial. Denying a person’s right to practice their religion, to feed their souls, is to break them — make them malleable and easy to control. Prisons control and regulate the minds and souls of its inmates, as it does with their bodies, hygiene, and physical health.

The way that inmates experience menstruation in prisons provides a window through which to understand how that control and regulation looks in action. Periods most regularly last three to seven days. A “normal” period might require a cis-woman or trans-man or gender nonconforming person to change their pad or tampon as often as every three or four hours to avoid developing bacteria. At this rate, a menstruating person could use twelve to twenty-one pads or tampons during one cycle. With the stress, depression, and anxiety that is commonly experienced in prisons, however, people often experience longer and heavier periods, necessitating additional menstruation products.

But prisoners are only granted ten pads per month, sometimes less, sometimes none at all. If they cannot afford additional tampons or pads, if they use pads to create products that fulfill needs unmet by the prison like Band-Aids or earplugs, if their family’s deposit doesn’t come in on time, if the commissary is closed that week, or if the commissary has run out of them, prisoners are forced to use rags or toilet paper as makeshift pads, or wear tampons or pads until and after they overflow, sometimes for several days at a time.

Chandra Bozelko, a previously incarcerated woman, described the impact of being denied access to feminine hygiene products:

Prisons control their wards by keeping sanitation just out of reach. Stains on clothes seep into self-esteem and serve as an indelible reminder of one’s powerlessness in prison…. To ask a macho guard for a tampon is humiliating. But it’s more than that: it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that, ultimately, the prison controls your cleanliness, your health and your feelings of self-esteem.

Bozelko clearly articulates how these costs reinforce feelings of powerlessness and power amongst prisoners and prison guards by removing prisoners’ agency and control over their health and identities, and transferring that power to the institution and its guards. These costs are disproportionately borne by poor Women of Color, who must navigate racialized gender violence. For Black women, this is experienced as misogynoir. For Londora Kitchens, a Black woman plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Muskegon County Jail, the intersections of her womanhood and Blackness meant that she was likened to an animal in a zoo and told not to bleed on the floor when she asked corrections officers for feminine hygiene products.

The lack of access to pads and tampons can have a real physical impact: Toxic Shock Syndrome, a sudden and potentially fatal condition caused by the accumulation of bacteria in pads or tampons left on or in too long. Because everyday hygienic products like pads, soap, laundry detergent, and toilet, are inaccessible to so many inmates, diseases spread like wildfire in prisons.

Perhaps, nowhere else is the sense of powerless among prisoners more acutely felt than with the control over their physical health. Women, as with most prisoners, face extreme delays to access healthcare, risk maltreatment, under qualified staff, and as of recently, financial costs. In 35 states, prisons charge prisoners co-pays on medical services regardless of their financial circumstance. These co-pays can range from a few dollars upward to $100. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care wrote that they hoped these costs would curb requests to see nurses and doctors and “instill a sense of fiscal responsibility.” And their hopes have been realized — these costs can and do turn prisoners away from seeking help, even when they most need it. This is especially dangerous for women, for those who have mental health issues, for the chronically ill, and for the differently abled. The barriers to healthcare present a stark illustration of the way prisons have near complete control over the lives and deaths of its prisoners.

Just as vital as access to material goods and services, is access to contacting loved ones.

Isolation is a key component of imprisonment, it is a punishment: “criminals” are removed from their communities to reflect and repent. Communication is regarded a privilege that must be earned, rather than a right that must be maintained. Communication is quantified and priced.

Emails can cost up to 43 cents per letter page. Phone calls have cost as high as $14 per minute with $3 connection and reconnection fees. Even at the lower end of costs at $1.22 a minute, prisoners are still charged 30 times more than the typical phone call rate of $0.04 a minute. Visitation takes hours between driving, being processed, and seeing your loved one. There is little to no assistance in arranging or reimbursing transportation to and from the prison, which is 100 miles away for the average prisoner’s family in the U.S. Consequently, people who do not have access to cars or driver’s licenses — poor and working class people, undocumented people, previously incarcerated people — are often unable to visit their family members. These costs deter and prohibit families from communicating with their incarcerated kin, placing a crushing weight on both the prisoners and their families’ emotional and financial well-being.

Contact to the people and communities one loves is an important aspect of maintaining one’s dignity, humanity, and hope — and it is also an important component of ensuring successful re-entry. During a series of interviews conducted by scholars of the University of St. Thomas, prisoners described what phone calls meant to them: “You feel like a person, not an object,” “being able to talk with the people who know you the most and the ability to feel loved,” and “hearing that voice that says they love you is your lifeline.” With a lack of contact, or none at all, prisoners revealed that they felt despair and anger.

This emotional toll is felt far beyond the walls and fences of prisons. Families of prisoners experience depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and other chronic health issues as a result of their incarceration, effects that are only inflamed when they cannot maintain contact. “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” a community-driven study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, argues:

The separation caused by incarceration has long-term intergenerational effects on family relationships and opportunities that are deeply damaging to building strong families and strong communities. At the same time, ensuring that incarcerated parents can retain that aspect of their identity—as parents—may be crucial to their rehabilitation and successful reentry.

With relationships and family structures strained, re-entry becomes an incredibly daunting and difficult task.

These fees may not seem exorbitant until they add up, until you consider what money prisoners are earning during incarceration. Today, prisoners run their own prisons, farm our food, make our clothing, staff call centers, take hotel reservations, and work in factories and slaughterhouses. Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, prisoners’ rights activists, write that “for private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries… all at a fraction of the cost of ‘free labor.’” Prisoners are now considered fortunate to work for the state, under the government-owned company UNICOR, with wages ranging from $0.23 to $1.15 per hour. Those who find themselves working in the private industry can expect to earn, on average, $0.93 to $4.73 per day, in some cases getting as low as 16 cents per day. Out of these “wages,” at least 50 percent go toward paying their debts accrued by being sentenced and incarcerated. With practically non-existent wages for full time work, one starts to wonder: how is this legal?

Simply put, incarcerated people have no constitutional right to any compensation for labor. They can be forced to work as a punishment for their crimes. The Thirteenth Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery in 1865 also paved the way for convict leasing, a system in which prisoners were leased to private companies as labor, a system that would essentially allow for the re-enslavement for Black folks. While convict leasing was technically abolished, prison labor today does not look so different, especially in private prisons. Prison labor is rooted in and an extension of slavery in the United States that continues to disrupt and destroy Black families and communities.

With close to no income, it falls upon prisoners’ family members and loved ones to support them. Most prisoners rely on money from home to get by, and so, family members work hard to get it to them. Most commissary accounts and deposits are managed by private companies, like Keefe company, who charge transaction fees. The largest fees are attached to the smallest deposit amounts. For family members without access to internet, depositing money by phone can cost up to five or six times more than those done online. For those who cannot afford these charges, mail orders (which are cheaper or even free) will cost time — processing time can take weeks in which their loved ones can go without necessary and sometimes time-sensitive items like pads or tampons.

This money, too, is liable to being taken out by the prison to pay off the prisoners’ debts. A prisoner’s mother told Truthout that to put $56 in her son’s commissary account, she had to send $125 because the state took 55% of her deposits to pay off his “restitution.” This phenomenon is not limited to California. As such, families must budget in order to send their loved ones money. Lisa Moore, the mother of a Mississippi prisoner, started working an extra job in order to send her son money. She estimates that she has spent $12,000 over three years.

It is women who bear the brunt of these costs. The study, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” found that between 83 and 87 percent of the financial costs of incarceration are borne by women. The charges that come with depositing money additionally tax the poor and working class, punishing those who cannot deposit online and those who cannot deposit more than $50 at a time.

Between the more frequent commissary charges and phone calls and the more expensive conviction-related costs, many families are left struggling, balancing the needs of their loved ones inside and out of prisons. Nearly two in three families an incarcerated member are unable to meet their family’s basic food or housing needs because of prison-related costs, most of which are headed by women and have children under the age of eighteen. Given the racialized nature of incarceration in the United States, a disproportionate number of these families are Black. In the article, “Racial Inequalities in Connectedness to Imprisoned Individuals in the United States,” Lee and co-authors, found that 44 percent of black women and 32 percent of black men have a family member in prison.

These costs in conjunction with the loss of income from the relative who goes to prison often results in debt and poverty that can last for generations. The costs of maintaining contact alone drove one in three families into debt. Excluding the charges associated with depositing money and maintaining contact, the average debt incurred for court fees and fines alone was $13,607 in the “Who Pays?” study.

Those whose families do not or cannot support them financially are released into the “free world” with hundreds to thousands of dollars of debt. This debt damages formerly incarcerated folks’ credit scores, which exempts them from some bank accounts, loans, mortgages, and rental housing that screens applicants by their score. This, in conjunction with their criminal record that interferes with their employment applications and denies them access to public housing and government assistance like food stamps, makes successful reentry nearly impossible.

They are granted no leniency; if they do not pay their financial debts, they risk paying late fees, accruing interest, losing their driver’s licenses, and being re-incarcerated. Alicia Bannon and the co-authors of the report “Criminal Justice Debt,” found that out of the fifteen states with the highest prison populations, all fifteen had “jurisdictions that arrest people for failing to pay debt or appear at debt-related hearings” and some jurisdictions in which individuals could “choose” to go to jail as a way to reduce their debt. In “Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the Contemporary United States,” Alexes Harris and co-authors interviewed 50 formerly incarcerated folks in Washington state and found that one in four of them had served time in jail as punishment for nonpayment. Some of those found that their legal debt increased “when they were reincarcerated for nonpayment because they were charged by the jail for the cost of their reincarceration.”

It seems paradoxical, nonsensical even, this cycle of debt and incarceration, until you start analyzing the roots of and ideology behind incarceration in the United States: racialized capitalism. Incarceration is about social control, it is about reproducing inequality, and maintaining the power of the white ruling class. Incarceration is a means of access to cheap, unregulated labor, an extension of chain gangs, of convict leasing, of slavery. Devin Thomas, an activist and scholar, argues, “America’s prison system intertwines debt and imprisonment in the systematic incarceration and impoverishment of communities of color all for the profit of corporate America.”

Debt and incarceration are intertwined and have been for centuries. People who found themselves unable to pay arrears were sent to debtors’ prisons through the 19th century until its formal elimination in 1833. Today, things are not so different. More than a third of all U.S. states allow for the imprisonment of borrowers who do not pay their debts, whether or not they can. Since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, debt related arrests have surged. In “Confining Social Insecurity: Neoliberalism and the Rise of the 21st Century Debtors’ Prison,” Genevieve LeBaron and Adrienne Roberts report that debt collection agencies are increasingly turning toward the state to recoup money from borrowers. With more analysis, it becomes clear how debt and incarceration are tools of social control “that mutually support each other,” as Thomas phrases it.

Debt is used to classify people — the rational from the irrational, the responsible from the irresponsible, the cautious from the greedy — arranging them in hierarchies, separating and isolating them in the process. Like crime, debt is framed as an individual moral failure. If debt is only the borrower’s fault, then it is only their responsibility to pay it off. In “Debt and Discipline,” Tayyab Mahmud writes, “The historical role of debt in moral discipline is evidenced by the fact that in all Indo-European languages, words for debt are synonymous with those for sin or guilt.” Thus, debt is often experienced alone, in shame. To live with debt, Mahmud argues, is to live in a “credit panopticon,” in which the debtor is liable to discipline by the state, the creditor, and themselves. Debt shapes one’s psyche; the more debt one has, the less likely one is to resist, rebel, or strike. The state and creditors at large can rely on debtors to self-discipline themselves, of course with the back-up of “the ‘invisible hand’ of the precarious labor market and burdens of debt with the ‘iron fist’ of the penal state.” In this sense, debt is a means of discipline.

Debt is also a tool of social reproduction, keeping marginalized groups in positions of powerlessness, and exploiting their moral sense of obligation for financial gains. The debt collection industry employs hundreds of thousands and generates billions of dollars every year. Debt entraps the poor and working classes, communities of color, women, LGBTQIA folks, and the formerly incarcerated into endless cycles. The effects of debt, like incarceration, travel across families, communities, and generations. There is a shared sense of entrapment, being caught and stuck in processes out of their control. Devin Thomas writes,

Court sanctioned debt has become the norm in America’s penal system. The idea, according to the justice system is to lighten taxpayer burden while teaching inmates the moral lesson upon which our neoliberal economy is built: one must pay one’s debts. The lesson more accurately is that those in debt must stay in debt.

Thus, it is not enough to go to prison, to serve time, to repent for one’s crimes. It is not enough to get a job, to make monthly payments, it is not even enough to go to jail to pay financial debts. The cycles will not stop. For incarceration and debt are designed to entrap people to provide and maintain sources of human and monetary capital. They are means of accumulation for the white ruling class.

To interrupt and stop these cycles then, we must challenge their roots: white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism. What would it mean for a world without prisons and debt? This question requires an exercise of imagination and bravery, for we know nothing else. We are taught that people must pay their debts, they must take responsibility, repent, and step up to fix their mistakes. We are taught that people must be punished if they don’t. We are taught that some people deserve to be imprisoned and removed society, that some people are dangerous, that some people are irresponsible or greedy or lazy. These lessons are repeated and repeated and repeated until they are felt, until we internalize them.

Prison abolition and debt forgiveness means much more than breaking down cages or starting new financial slates. They call for a completely different social and economic order. In that sense, it makes sense to start imagining what we want to create instead of how we want to destroy. We need to ground our imaginations in the belief that every single person deserves stable housing, access to medical care, healthy food, physical and psychological safety, whether or not they are working. To believe this, is to reject the lessons that we have been taught our entire lives. To believe this we must begin to free our minds. The movements for prison abolition and debt forgiveness require imagination, solidarity, and an understanding of the ways different axes of power — white supremacy, class exploitation, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism — intersect to create the world in which we live, fill the prisons we seek to destroy, and accumulate the debt we seek to forgive.


Caitlin Munchick is a junior at Vassar College. She is originally from Johannesburg, South Africa but has since found home in Poughkeepsie, New York where she works with the grassroots organization, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson.