Toilet paper, Tampons, and Phone Calls: Affording Prison in California

An interview with a recently released prisoner on the financial burdens associated with imprisonment

KT was incarcerated in California for one year over charges related to fraud. She is a friend of mine, but I did not find out she was in prison until she had served more than half of her sentence. When I learned she was incarcerated, I reached out to her family to offer support and began visiting her every week for her last couple months in prison. She was held in Dublin FCI, just a few miles from my house but very far from her home in Southern California.

In communicating with KT, I was struck by the huge impact of prison costs on not just KT’s life, but on her whole family. Seemingly small expenses in prison mounted and became burdensome for her wife and eventually created major rifts between family members, with ramifications that continued after KT left prison.

This interview was conducted 19 days after KT was released in early December, 2017.

RR: Before prison, you were the primary breadwinner in your house, is that right? So in effect, your imprisonment not only cost your family the primary income, but also cost additional money. What was that like for your wife?

KT: So before prison, I was the primary breadwinner. When I went to prison, it was a huge financial struggle for Chrissy. I was in charge of the rent and all of our basic bills, like gas, electricity, water, the phones, things like that. When I went to prison, all of that responsibility fell 100% on Chrissy. That was really, really difficult. Because I knew she wouldn’t be able to afford that, and she knew she would not be able to afford that.

So immediately the first thing she did was she had to look for another apartment, because she knew she would not be able to afford even the next month’s rent. So first it’s the hassle of looking for an apartment in LA, and they go instantly. When she did find an affordable apartment —it’s a very small studio, it’s like 280 square feet, it’s really small—she had to get rid of all the furniture, and she had to box up all of my clothes, my toiletries, things she wouldn’t be able to put in the small studio and store it with my siblings.

And she also had to break the lease, so there was a fine on that. And right away my license was suspended, so she had to pay registration for my car to keep my car, insurance. And then she had to take on all of the daily responsibilities of now living on your own —gas, electric. And then the cost of moving, which was expensive. She had to make sure she wasn’t working the first couple weeks while she was doing this, so it was a loss of work.

RR: I contacted your family in September, and one of the first things I asked was if there was any way I could help. And the message I got back was (and I’m just going to read this message from your wife): “Yes it has been an insanely hard year.  Whatever you want to do to help would be amazing.  So it’s prob not a surprise to you but [KT]’s  family isn’t helping at all and I have been the only one putting any money on her books. They have to pay for toilet paper and tampons, nothing is free. This put me in a horrible financial situation and I asked [KT]’s family if they could put $5 or $10 bucks on her books and no one was willing. So it’s been super difficult.” I ended up sending you money to cover the last few months in prison, and it ended up really adding up — I sent well over $100/month, which surprised me. I thought many families would struggle to come up with that kind of money.

Can you tell me a bit about the costs of prison. On a typical week, what would your expenses look like?

KT: What I bought commonly—from the commissary sheet—would include laundry detergent. I got Ocean Bursts which was $1.30, the cheapest one.

I also bought deodorant. Which was Dial, which was $1.45.  Once a month, I’d have to buy shampoo and conditioner. I’d have to buy toothpaste. Before November, I’d have to buy tampons and pads, and that was pretty expensive. So that was the basic hygiene. Of course, every now and again, I’d have to buy a thing, but it wasn’t on a monthly basis. For example, stamps and vitamins, which would include daily vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, which I thought was important because there was no nutritional food in prison. Lip balm, bandaids, things you don’t need every week, but you should have in your locker. I get eczema so there’s hydrocortisone cream you can buy, and I ended up getting the medicated stuff because mine was pretty bad.

Also a lot of the women there got really bad migraines. I was also buying aspirin on the regular, and there was also ibuprofen you could buy. Allergy pills, because allergies were really bad. And then soap.

As far as food items, I bought peanut butter on the regular because it’s filling and had protein in it, and I had the vegetarian diet. And then there was like granola bars, protein bars, coffee. There were the little seaweed packs.

They issue you your khakis and they give you like four outfits, four button down shirts and four pants, as well as boots. They issue you two bras, four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, and a jacket. As far as the clothes I bought, it’s called your greys, your sweat outfits, which is what you work out in and stuff. I had one pair of sweatpants, one pair of shorts, two t-shirts, and then because it gets godawful cold in Dublin I bought a beanie and a scarf.

I would say for just one basic outfit, the t-shirt, sweatpants, the thermal undershirt, the long johns, it was about $100.

And it’s amazing how even the little items really add up. Basic hygiene. I was spending $20 a month on it. And when I had to buy something larger, like when I got out of the SHU, it was more.  

RR: Did it cost money to send emails, letters, or talk on the phone?

KT: Phone calls and emails were definitely the biggest expense for me, but I had to do it.

We had to communicate, and it’s not free to communicate in prison. For $2, I got 40 minutes of email. And that goes by really quick. So I was easily spending $10/month, I mean easily, just on emails.

Also phone calls are $3.10 for fifteen minutes if you have a long distance phone number. In Dublin, the local number was 925, so if you were anything but 925 it was $3.10 for fifteen minutes. Chrissy ended up purchasing a 925 number so that I could make calls for 90 cents a minute. It was about $18 a month, but she didn’t even know about that for the first month. The initial cost was…a lot.

I was allotted 300 minutes a month, or 20 fifteen minute phone calls, and the first month, December, they give you 400 minutes a month. So the first month, it was easily, $50-$60. Between phone calls and emails, that was a good $100 right there.

Chrissy was able to put $30, $40, sometimes she could only do $20 on my books. And I made sure pretty much all of that went to phone calls and emails. Because to me, the most important thing was to be able to communicate with her. So, there were a few times I was unable to call her or email her because I didn’t have the money for it.

RR: Did that impact how often you spoke to your family?

KT: It definitely impacted how I talked to my family. Talking to my wife was the most important thing to me. It also impacted the secondary group, my family. The number one impact was the lack of minutes, since you are only allowed 20 fifteen minute phone calls, and that meant only 20 days out of the month I could make a call. We got on a schedule of… I would call her two days in a row, then take a day off. And sometimes something major would happen, and I would call her twice in a day, and then I would have to take two days off.

RR: You worked in prison. Can you talk about how much money you made working, and was that typical for a prison job?

KT: Every single prisoner has to work. You are not allowed to not work. Even if you are nine months pregnant, and a lot of women were, you still had to hold a job.

My job was called UNICOR. And UNICOR is the highest paying job in prison. So it’s great if you don’t really receive financial help, or if it’s low financial help. UNICOR varies from prison to prison on what they do. But at Dublin, it was telemarketing. So, my job was a telemarketer, and I would do a 40 hour work week. From 6:45 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon, with a 45 minute lunch break.

There’s five different levels of pay for UNICOR, and the level of pay is based only on your time there, not how well you do. You start at a level five, which is 13 cents an hour. You could go up to a level one, which means you would have to be there for over a year. Level ones make just over $1 an hour. I think it’s $1.06.

If you don’t have a GED or a high school diploma, the highest level you can go is a level four, which is 26 cents an hour.

The prison does encourage you to get a GED because of that, and GED classes are free.

I started at level five, after two months I was bumped to a level four, and then after three months I was bumped to a level three. That was 39 cents an hour. I started in February. My last month, I was at 69 cents an hour.

But UNICOR can cut your hours at any point in time… They cut your hours every summer and every winter, so in the months of June and July, because I was one of the better agents, I was getting more of the full time hours, but there were weeks I was only working 25-30 hours. My last few weeks at Dublin, I was working only 25 hours. Or they let a lot of the full time people go [in summer and winter]. Luckily, I was never let go.

In the beginning, my paychecks were about $15 a month.  A typical paycheck for me toward the end of my incarceration was about $30/month

RR: And you have a restitution, is that right? How much is that, and how did that affect your paycheck?

KT: My restitution is like a total of $71,900. For anybody who has to pay restitution, they’ll take 50% of your paycheck. So for me, when I started to “make more money” at UNICOR, I didn’t necessarily see that money. So when I get to the level three, for example, and my paychecks were higher, my gross pay was $60-$80, but I would only be bringing home the $30, and that was with the 50% restitution.

RR: Did you pay taxes? Anything else come out of your paycheck?

KT: No, no taxes, no Social Security. It was nothing government was taken out.

Now if you don’t owe restitution, they’ll take $25/quarter if you owe court fees. And this is huge, because most people, it doesn’t matter what your crime is, you have to pay court fees. Unless the judge waives it, which they never do. And it’s $100 per charge.

And when you first get to prison, there are a lot of initial things you have to buy—like nail clippers, tweezers, things you don’t really think about and you only need to buy once, but you need it right away. And you have to buy a lock. A lock is $6.50 and then they raised it to $7.10 and you have to buy it right away, because women will steal your shit. One hundred percent. So you have to keep your stuff locked. They also steal stuff from the dryers. So you have to sit with your laundry or it’ll be stolen. So, the court fees are the first thing you have to pay, but it’s really hard for a new inmate to come in with all these initial things you have to pay, and they hit your paycheck right away for $25.

And again, I had the highest paying job. There were close to 300 women who worked at UNICOR. But there were 1,000 women at the prison. So that left 700 women who didn’t work at UNICOR. The other prison jobs didn’t make nearly the $30/month or more if you didn’t have restitution. A typical prison job you are paid around $20/month. A $20/month job would be like a kitchen, an orderly at the housing unit is like $10/month. All of these women are 40 hours a week. If you work the yard, which is like 20 hours a week, you make like $4 a month.

And there were also goose herders. They have a really bad geese problem. So they would take a stick and herd the geese nicely to safe areas on the perimeter of the prison so they weren’t there at the chow hall or walking into buildings. And they made $5/month for 20 hours a week.

Even if you are making $4, $5, $20 a month, you still obligated to pay the $25 quarterly. So a lot of women wouldn’t be making $25 a quarter for court fees. They don’t tell you what day the money is coming out, they just tell you that you need to keep $25 on the books.

If you don’t have the $25 when they go to take the money out of your books, you get punished. You lose your room, and you have to move into what’s called the A-O rooms, which is where the new inmates go. A-O rooms are notorious for having your items stolen, because it’s all new women coming in and out on a daily basis, you get new roommates every day. A-O rooms are loud, they stink. You really don’t want to be in an A-O room.  

These women are fresh off the bus. A huge problem with fresh off the bus inmates is lice and skin diseases like scabies, so that’s a huge risk. A lot of these women were homeless or prostitutes. So you wouldn’t want to lose your room.

And if it was an ongoing issue, you could be sent to the SHU.

RR: That’s solitary?

KT: Yes, Special Housing Unit. That’s when you’re in solitary confinement. That wasn’t in print anywhere, but it could happen.

Or you could get a shot. A shot could vary, but usually what it meant was a loss of phone or email privileges, and it could be anywhere from two weeks or three months or six months, no phone calls or emails to family and friends. Or you could lose commissary for anywhere from two weeks to three months or six months.

RR: And you were put in the SHU once?

KT: Yes. I did. For eight days. Which is a very low amount of time for most people.

RR: How was it?

KT: How was it? Ah, boring.

When you get sent to the SHU, you get sent right away. It’s not like you get to go to your room, pack your stuff, put on your comfortable stuff. It’s the guards, the COs, who pack your stuff from your locker.

First of all, they will throw away all food items. Because they don’t know how long you’ll be in the SHU. There are women that could be in there for six months. They’ll throw away personal items. They threw away photos I had. I had books in the locker. I had personal books in my locker from friends, and those were all taken. Some paperwork….legal paperwork, those they can’t throw away, but they’ll throw away your papers.

And the COs don’t give a flying fuck about your personal items. So many times, it’s very common, that when you get sent to the SHU, sometimes your clothes will be thrown away. Any open hygiene items, a lot of that will be thrown away, aspirin bottles, pills like vitamins.

Also a lot of times, when the officers are going to pack out an inmate, they put all your stuff in a military backpack, and sometimes it takes two to three backpacks to pack out your stuff. So when the COs unlock your locker and they are called to do something else, they have to leave your locker. And they leave your locker unattended—which happens most of the time—the women are vultures, they’ll come in and steal all your stuff. I had a t-shirt taken, I had my socks taken, I had my towels taken. Things that should have been packed were taken. It was very common for women to have their tennis shoes taken. And if they had kept any hygiene products outside of their locker, that was taken. I had my soap taken, my toothpaste. When I came out of the SHU, I had to rebuy all of those items. My tweezers were taken.

RR: You were held in three different prisons. One in San Diego, one in Las Vegas, and then finally in Dublin. Was there a period of time when you didn’t have access to money? What was that like?

KT: Yes. When you move jails or prisons, typically your money is supposed to move with you. That doesn’t always happen. When I was in San Diego, and I left San Diego, I had some money in my books. I think I had $13 on my books. Instead of being moved to Vegas, which was only supposed to be a temporary place, we were only supposed to be there for three days, we ended up being in Vegas for three weeks, and it was because weather conditions in Oakland were very, very bad. It was raining hardcore and we had to take a very small plane. And then there were plane problems. My money was transferred from San Diego directly to Dublin. So I had no money in Vegas. So I was unable to make phone calls, I had no telephone access and no email access.

It was really hard because I was unable to communicate with Chrissy what was happening. For security purposes, when they transfer an inmate, they don’t tell the inmate they are going to be transferred. They cut off your phone and email privileges 24 hours before you get transferred. And you know you are going to be transferred because you go to make a phone call or send an email, and your email is cut off.

They don’t tell the inmate that you’re going to be transferred or where you are going. I didn’t know if I was going to go to Dublin or Texas or where.

When I first got to Vegas, I was allowed one three minute phone call to Chrissy, just to let her know where I was. All calls are monitored, so there was a woman sitting next to me. I told her, “Hey I’m in Vegas, I don’t have access to email or phone calls.”

That was scary. Especially being…I had only been locked up for two weeks at that point. So I really needed to communicate what was happening, did you find an apartment, what’s happening on your end?

So I had three minutes. And she didn’t know where I was going. For all she knew I could have ended up in Connecticut.

Nor could I buy any commissary items. And the commissary items I had in San Diego –aspirin, stuff like that — I didn’t have.

In Vegas, they provided you with very basic, hotel sample sizes of shampoo, a little thing of soap, a little razor. I think that’s all they had for you. I think you were given that once every five days. So I was able to get on, but I didn’t have access to anything like aspirin, contact solution, cough drops, none of that is free.

RR: Do you have any idea what happens to people in prison who don’t have friends or family to put money on their books?

KT: What you can do if you don’t have friends or family putting money on your books, the easiest way to get money for your basic hygiene is to have a hustle. It’s against prison rules to have a hustle, but pretty much everybody has to do it. You can offer to wash and iron people’s clothes for $10-$15 a month. Since you can’t get money from them, you would then just give them a bill, a list of commissary items that equal that much money. However, again, this is not allowed, and if you’re caught, you can get a shot or go to the SHU.

A lot of women would sell their medications. A lot of times they would “cheek” their medications, that was a very common hustle. There are two guards that watch you. You have to open your mouth to show you swallowed it, but they would hide it in their cheek and then sell it to other inmates.

Kitchen workers had the best hustle because they would steal straight from the kitchen. They would steal vegetables, whole onions, peppers, meat, eggs. And for example, eggs went for $1 an egg. And they would sell these items to the women in the housing units. But if you are caught you are fired and you are either given a shot or go to the SHU depending on how bad it is. So it was a risk.

I had a hustle. I had gotten boost bars, which are anxiety pills, but I was able to sell four pills for a dollar. I also would gather apples [from the kitchen]. I used to hide about 12 apples at a time in my clothes, in my jacket, and I could sell four for a dollar. There were two girls that liked the cereal. So they each gave me a really big bag, and I would fill the bag with cereal. So I would go around and collect cereal from the other women so I could fill these bags. A bag would last two weeks and I would get $4 a bag. I was never caught with the cereal but I was caught once with the apples, and I had to do extra duty, which was gather all the trash in the prison. But that was a really good thing because I should have gotten a shot.

RR: So is it correct that you couldn’t use a hustle to get money on your phone or email accounts?

KT: Correct. Because there was no cash involved, none of this could go on phone or email. So you could only get commissary items through the hustle.

RR: So it’s likely that people who didn’t have friends and family with enough extra money to put money on their books, couldn’t talk to people much on the outside?

KT: Correct, absolutely. Except maybe letters, since you could get envelopes and notebooks from the commissary.

RR: One of the things your wife mentioned was lack of access to tampons or toilet paper. Can you explain that?

KT: So, at Dublin, they didn’t provide feminine hygiene, nor did they provide toilet paper or any thing. You were allowed to get toilet paper, pads, a little thing of laundry detergent, and an all purpose soap for shampoo or body wash or whatever and two stamped envelopes, if you were indigent. Dublin’s classification of indigent was if you have less than $3 on your books for three consecutive months. So, if at any point in time you had $3.10, you were not considered indigent. That’s the only time you received anything for free, except when you first got to Dublin, you got a sample size soap, a little thing of laundry detergent for one wash, ten pads, and two rolls of toilet paper, and a little thing of toothpaste and a little toothbrush, like an inch tall, and the bristles fall off after two weeks. So you pretty much have to buy everything right away.

Toilet paper was $5.85 for a pack of twelve, and tampons were $4.95 at first for a box of twenty. Pads were $9.80 for a pack of thirty. Now mind you, this is really shit quality tampons and pads…I don’t have a strong flow, but typically I’d have to wear a tampon and a pad at the same time. So you ran through it fairly quickly.

In August, maybe August 31st, they passed a law where feminine hygiene and toilet paper was given to you for free. They had to provide it for free. But they only provide thirty of a particular feminine hygiene item a month, whether tampons, pads, or pantiliners. Although that was passed in August, we didn’t get our first shipment of the free items until November. So during that period of time, they raised the prices on tampons and pads on commissary. And we had to purchase them because they hadn’t provided us the free ones yet. So it was a total scam.

RR: And I realize this is a sensitive issue, but I understand these financial issues contributed to a rift between you and some of your family members. Can you talk about that a little, and about how it feels to ask for money from people on the outside?

KT: Pretty much the only way to survive is getting financial help from family and friends. Even if you have a “high paying” job like I do, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed the hours. So you have to have financial help from family or friends. In my particular case, Chrissy was, for the bulk of my imprisonment, my consistent money source.

But because finances were difficult for her, she was only able to put $15-$30 a month on my books, and the bulk of that went to phone calls and emails, so we could keep up communications.

I don’t have the kind of family where we ask for money. It’s kind of taboo in my family. I’ve never had the luxury of having my parents pay my credit card bills, or financial assistance for college, or financial assistance to get a car. I’ve been financially responsible for myself since I moved out of my parents’ house. So in my particular case, when shit hit the fan, Chrissy reached out to my immediate family members to be like hey this is what’s going on, I’m financially strapped, can you guys help? She didn’t ask for anything for herself. She told them how to do it [put money on the prison books].

When I first got locked up, my one sister put $30 on my books, my brother put $50 on my books. But in the course of the months going on, it started to dwindled. By June, July, I hadn’t had any money put on my books. So Chrissy reached out. I was really low on hygiene. I was out of deodorant, I was running really low on tooth paste, my shampoo and conditioner was going to be over soon. I was out of bar soap. So I was like, I really need help. So Chrissy asked if each family member could give $5-10. And asking for financial assistance is taboo in my family. It was ill received.

A lot of family members were like, why don’t you do it? Pretty much Chrissy asking for that had my whole family stop giving me money altogether. For the remaining  six months, I didn’t receive a penny from the rest of my family. For certain by June, I didn’t get any money from anybody, except Chrissy.

RR: And that led to a falling out?

KT: It did lead to a falling out with my family. It led to a huge falling out. That simple request to help me out. It led to my Dad saying that when he was in prison 30 years ago, we didn’t have to buy all this stuff. But mind you, my Dad was in prison 30 years ago, and he was receiving financial assistance on a monthly basis from his friends.

And different prisons have different rules. In Carswell in Texas, all women were given hygiene every two weeks, I was told. All women get shampoo, bar soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, feminine hygiene. I was told on a biweekly basis, this was given to all women.

So then there was a lot of lies being told, a lot of things being said behind my back, a lot of things being said about Chrissy. That simple request kind of catapulted more issues to be discussed between family members. Which led to a falling out.

RR: And that continues, even now after prison?

KT: Yes. That continues

Names pseudonymized and interview edited lightly for length.

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