Christopher Zoukis, a 27-year-old federal prisoner, is the author of Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012), a contributing writer for Prison Legal News, and a regular commentator on prison matters in the penal press. He has navigated the troublesome waters of incarceration for the past 8 years, in both federal and state prisons and at the medium- and low-security levels. Today I sit down with Mr. Zoukis to discuss the complex issue of determining how much money family members and friends of the incarcerated should send to those in prison.
Randy Radic: In my duties as the senior editor at Middle Street Publishing and the chief editor of the Prison Law Blog, I often receive inquiries from family members and friends of the incarcerated concerning how much money is appropriate to send to those in prison. I find this question hard to answer since it is so subjective. What are your thoughts on how much money is appropriate to send incarcerated friends and family members?
Christopher Zoukis: Subjective is most certainly the word here. The first two questions those outside of prison should ask are: What prison system is their loved one or friend incarcerated within and what is the allowable monthly or weekly spending limit at the prison (if any)? This should be the starting point of any determination on how much money is appropriate to send to an incarcerated loved one or friend.
My experience is with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the North Carolina Department of Corrections. As such, I can provide specific information for these two prison systems. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, federal prisoners can spend $320 per month ($370 in November and December) on commissary items. This doesn’t include over-the-counter medications, copy cards, or postage stamps. In the North Carolina Department of Corrections, prisoners can spend up to $40 per week in the institutional commissary.
With these numbers in mind, anything up to $320 per month for federal prisoners and $160 per month for prisoners in the North Carolina Department of Corrections would allow them to live very comfortably. This would easily place them in the top one percent of those incarcerated within the respective prison systems.
Randy Radic: This seems like a lot of money. Do all federal and state prisoners receive this much from their family and friends?
Christopher Zoukis: Absolutely not! Most prisoners don’t receive any money from their family members or friends. This is just the top tier for an appropriate amount; an amount of money that the prisoner could spend. Most don’t spend anywhere near this amount of money in their prison’s commissary. I present these numbers so that family members and friends of the incarcerated will know what the parameters are.
I would also point out that getting started in any prison system can take some money. Since most of the vendors are the same for every prison system, you can figure that an inmate will probably need at least $100.00 to get a sweatshirt, sweatpants, shorts, and sneakers. These are basic items that really make life a lot nicer. With $200.00, a new arrival could stock themselves up nicely with food, a radio, an MP3 player, and even higher quality headphones. In many institutions, an inmate can’t even go to the gym in state-issued boots. You can ask the inmate to send you a copy of the commissary list to get an idea of prices.
Randy Radic: Now that we know what can be spent, can you suggest what an appropriate amount of money would be for a family member or friend to send to an incarcerated loved one or friend?
Christopher Zoukis: In my experience, federal prisoners do well with anything between $40 and $80 per month. While this won’t allow a prisoner to buy all of the food that they would like to, it does allow for them to purchase hygienic items, batteries for a radio (and the radio itself), an MP3 player (if the prison system allows for their purchase), and a few creature comforts. In order to live comfortably, I would suggest an amount between $120 and $200 per month. This would allow for food virtually every day of the week and luxury items when desired, even if not the maximum amount allowed to be spent in a given month.
Obviously, for many, $100 to $200 is not a feasible amount of money to send to an incarcerated loved one or friend each month. As such, the point which should be conveyed is that anything is of use. Even $20 a month can make quite a bit of difference in a prisoner’s lifestyle. With $20 per month, the prisoner could at least purchase soap, quality toothpaste (and a quality toothbrush), and batteries for their radio. Even a single check for $15 could allow a prisoner to purchase a few comforts which would traditionally be outside of their reach. Literally anything can, and does, make a difference.
Randy Radic: Prisoners are generally assigned to a work detail where they can make money for their efforts. How much money is typical for a state or federal prisoner to earn from such work assignments?
Christopher Zoukis: Not much. Certainly not enough to live comfortably off of. When I was incarcerated within the North Carolina Department of Corrections, I had two very good jobs which placed me at the top tier of earners. One of which had me earning $14 per week in a North Carolina Department of Transportation recycling plant, the other $7 per week working in the clothes house of my prison. But in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, I have made $5.25-$7.40 per month as a compound orderly and $0.12 per month as a recreation orderly.
Now, if I wanted to, I could find a better paying job. I could probably find a work detail which would pay me around $20 to $30 per month, but this would be for virtually full-time employment. After several years of full-time employment, it is possible to climb the work assignment ladder and make more money. Top earners for a particular department can make upwards of $100 per month, but there are usually only a handful of these for an entire federal prison. Excluding UNICOR workers, FCI Petersburg, a medium-security federal prison which houses roughly 2,000 prisoners, probably only has 15 or so inmates who make this much money.
Randy Radic: Are there other areas where prisoners can spend money outside of the institutional commissary?
Christopher Zoukis: Yes, depending on the prison system in question. The North Carolina Department of Corrections allows prisoners to use telephones to call friends and family. As of 2008, when I was transferred from the North Carolina Department of Corrections to Federal Bureau of Prisons’ custody, prisoners could only place collect calls. As such, this didn’t come out of the prisoner’s commissary/trust fund account. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a different story.
Prisoners confined within the Federal Bureau of Prisons can spend money on the telephone system, email service, and MP3 service. Federal prisoners can use up to 300 minutes of telephone time each month. At most, for debit dial long-distance telephone calls, this can result in a total charge of $69 per month, which comes out of the prisoner’s trust fund account. Local calls incur a reduced charge and collect calls are more expensive, but billed to the call’s recipient, not to the prisoner placing the telephone call.
The TRULINCS computers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons offer both email and MP3 player services. Email services cost prisoners $0.05 per minute, and any email printing costs $0.15 per page. Browsing of MP3 song files does not incur a cost, but song purchases do. Song purchases run from $0.80 to $1.55 per song.
Randy Radic: What would you recommend families and friends of prisoners send in order to allow liberal use of the telephone, TRULINCS computer email service, and TRULINCS MP3 player service?
Christopher Zoukis: This depends greatly on what they can afford and what their goals are. For $20 per month, their incarcerated family member or friend could purchase around 15 to 20 MP3 files; the equivalent of a complete CD. Telephone calls are a bit more difficult to quantify since there are different rates for long-distance, local, debit, and collect telephone calls. And email usage is very subjective since some people prefer to spend perhaps 5 or 10 minutes a day on it (if they can afford even that), and others an hour or two each day.
A fair amount would probably be $20 per month for MP3 files, another $20 per month for email, and $30-$40 per month for telephone costs. This would allow the prisoner to make a few telephone calls per week, email a few times a day, and purchase a CD’s worth of music each month. Of course, the MP3 player currently available in the Federal Bureau of Prisons cost $69; as such they would first have to purchase this electronic device prior to even being able to purchase MP3 music files from the TRULINCS MP3 player service.
Randy Radic: It sounds expensive to be a federal prisoner. You’re suggesting family and friends of federal prisoners send $70-$80 in addition to the funds for commissary purchases?
Christopher Zoukis: It certainly can be expensive to be a federal prisoner, but keep in mind that these are just suggestions and they only apply if the federal prisoner is going to participate in these elective programs. By no means do most federal prisoners own an MP3 player. A number do, but most do not. Likewise, while virtually all federal prisoners have access to the TRULINCS/Corrlinks.com email service, I would suggest that most federal prisoners don’t spend more than a few minutes a day on it, if they have the funds to even do that. As such, many of the suggestions I’ve made might very well not apply to the specific federal prisoner in question. The first two components to be considered should be commissary and telephone usage. Family members and friends of prisoners should start their calculations there and then move on to more elective components, if funding remains available.
Randy Radic: How can family members and friends of federal prisoners deposit funds on a prisoner’s trust fund account?
Christopher Zoukis: The Federal Bureau of Prisons allows those outside of prison to deposit funds on federal prisoners’ trust fund accounts through Western Union, MoneyGram, and checks and money orders sent via U.S. Mail to the National Lockbox in Des Moines, Iowa. While Western Union and MoneyGram allow for the almost instantaneous deposit, they incur fees, too. As such, those making deposits to federal prisoners’ trust fund accounts should consider sending money through the U.S. Mail and by using U.S. Postal Money Orders. This is the least expensive way of depositing funds. As such, it allows more money to become available to the federal prisoner, even if the method of delivery is slower.
Randy Radic: How can those outside of prison learn more about how to deposit funds on a federal prisoners’ trust fund account?
Christopher Zoukis: Those outside of prison can swing by the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website at https://www.bop.gov/. There they can learn about the various methods of depositing funds on a federal prisoner’s trust fund account.
Randy Radic: Bottom line, what is the minimum amount of money a family member or friend of a prisoner should send and with what frequency?
Christopher Zoukis: Times are tough in America. Housing foreclosures are forcing families out on the streets, jobs are hard to come by, and additional services are being offered to prisoners which all seem to incur additional fees. As such, it is not only understandable, but expected that extra money for incarcerated loved ones and friends will be hard to come by.
With this in mind, anything can be of use. Families and friends of prisoners shouldn’t think that only a monthly infusion will make a difference. They shouldn’t think in the $50s or $100s, but in the $20s. Twenty dollars here and there can make a world of difference to a prisoner. If two or three people can manage to send $20, then the prisoner is doing very well for that month. That’s a few phone calls, some commissary, and perhaps even a song or two on the MP3 player service.
The point is simple: give what you can afford to give. Your incarcerated loved ones and friends will appreciate whatever you can afford. For them, $20 could mean the difference between remaining hungry after leaving the chow hall for a month and being filled. The power of contentment is what you hold in your hands, nothing less.