Money in the Prison System – Living with Stamps

Money. In order to make it in the world today, you need a little bit of money. You earn money by working, by selling items, or even receiving money as a gift. It seems like in today’s world, nothing is free. A person needs money in order to survive….to get food and shelter and to pay bills. For some, money is very hard to come by and it seems that no matter how much you work you can never get ahead of the game. For others, it seems like money grows on trees.

Growing up my family always had enough money for food to eat, clothes on our backs, and a home to live in. We were blessed to take some family vacations and for the kids to participate in sports leagues and attend summer camps. My parents always tithed their money, too. We weren’t wealthy by any means, but my parents knew the best ways to use the money they made wisely.

I learned how to budget my money also and I usually only bought what I really needed, although there were times I splurged and bought some things that I considered “wants”. I learned from an early age to save money, and when I grew up and lived on my own I never had any problems paying my bills and making payments.

Believe it or not, in prison it takes money to survive, too. Every inmate is required to have a job. Jobs pay anywhere between $2 a month (yes, you heard that right!) and $40 a month. As the head librarian on this compound I bring in a whopping $20 a month. I also officiate sand volleyball matches and that gives me an additional $10 a month during the season. Actually, we don’t really receive the money as cash; money is not allowed on the compound. It all goes into my personal account to be used for phone calls and/or commissary items……extra food, hygiene items, snacks, clothes.

But imagine living on $30 a month – that’s roughly $7.50 a week. Could you do it? I know I couldn’t outside of prison. Where would I live and eat for $1 a day? Even in here it’s tough to live on $30 a month since phone calls cost $.90 for a fifteen-minute local call and up to $3.15 for a long distance call. I have to stop and think each time I make a call if I can afford to make the call. Commissary items are not cheap either, as each item is a 30% mark up of store cost.  Sometimes it takes inmates months, even years, to save 100% of their paychecks to buy a new pair of shoes. (We are given a few items when we arrive but anything we want to replace or add to have to be paid by the individual.) Unless an inmate gets money sent in from family and friends, it’s definitely about survival. In order to get the items you need like soap and shampoo and toothpaste or to make phone calls to family and friends since they cannot call in sometimes people in prison create “hustles”.

Hustles are made up jobs that an inmate creates to earn some extra money. Examples of hustles: doing another person’s laundry, cleaning rooms, running a poker table, selling sodas, chips and candy bars, making arts and crafts items to sell, or stealing items from other inmates and reselling them. That happened to me with a new pair of shorts that I just bought and had drying in the dryer. There are other hustles, but these are a few main ones.

14-flagforallseasons2Now you may be wondering how a person gets paid from another inmate if actual cash is not allowed on the compound. There are two ways: l) The hustler gives the payer a list of items to purchase for him at the commissary store equal to what they owe that person. 2) Stamps. Since we are not allowed cash, but are allowed stamps, we turn stamps into our cash.

We have three different types of stamps: compound stamps, forever stamps, and flat books. A compound stamp is an old beat up stamp that has been in circulation for years, and can no longer be used for mailing purposes.  A compound stamp’s value is between $.25 to $.30. A forever stamp is an actual mailing stamp. It is usually an older stamp but is in good condition, and can still be used to mail letters. The value is between $.32 to $.37. A flat book is an actual book of stamps that you would purchase at the post office. It is 20 stamps, connected together all in one piece. If one stamp is removed from the flat book it is no longer a flat book but are individual forever stamps. The value is worth between $8 -$10. The value of each stamp is determined by the hustler, usually depending if the payer is your friend or not. And if the hustler says one compound book or one forever book that means 20 stamps of the appropriate type of stamp. A compound book has value from $5-$6. A forever book’s value ranges from $6.50-$7.50, again depending on the hustler. Does this make sense?

Just an FYI. Below is a list of a few items and hustles, and their costs.

Seagoville Prison Price List (Subject to Change)

  • Cold Soda – 2 compound stamps or 2 forever stamps
  • Room Clean – 10 compound stamps
  • Large Prison Pizza – 3 compound books or 2 forever books
  • Small bag of milk (we do have bags of milk!) – 1 compound stamp or 1 forever stamp
  • Painting of room – 2 flatbooks
  • Locker Shelves – 6 forever stamps
  • Haircut – 8 compound stamps
  • Candybar – 3 forever stamps

When I first arrived in prison I had no clue how this worked. But after a while I got used to it and it became normal to my way of thinking. It’s a different world inside these walls and nothing at all like the monetary system you know. In case you are wondering – No, I do not have a “hustle”. And yes, I usually get my mailing stamps for around $6.50 a book. It sure does beat the $9.40 you can spend at the post office these days. If you need any mailing stamps, just let me know. I can cut you a great deal. Hmmmm…..did I just create a hustle?!?!?!? HA!

I just wanted to share a little bit of life in these walls. It works for me while I’m here. But I do look forward to coming home and handling my finances the way I was taught so long ago!


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