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Handle Your Money in Jail or Prison

Frankly, once you are in either jail or prison the only money you’ll be able to control is that which you either earn working certain in-prison jobs or that which is sent to you by your family.
But let’s look at it step by step. The processes are a little different between federal prison and state prisons and jail. There are even differences between prisons in different states. To be certain what to do, you’ll need to look up the website for the prison to which you’ve been assigned.

Prepare, prepare, prepare
You’ll want to prepare as much as you can, gather as much information as you can, and take care of as much as you can before you arrive at your facility. A day or so before you arrive, mail yourself any important information—you won’t be able to bring anything with you in person. Addresses, a copy of your marriage certificate if it’s recent, your prescriptions, etc. You could even order books from Amazon, set to arrive after you do. Make sure you or your family puts money in your commissary account. Do try to take your recently filled prescription medications in with you.

First, let’s walk through federal prison.

If you don’t already know what prison you’ll be sent to, check frequently to see if your name and ID number come up on the inmate locater. If you are already incarcerated, have your family member check. When you have your assigned location and your ID number, you (or a family member) can wire money into your prison commissary account. In some circumstances it can be in your account in a matter of hours, so it can be sent the morning of your projected arrival.

Why is this important? This way, you’ll have money available to you as soon as you get processed in (intake). At some prisons they let you shop the commissary the day you arrive if you have funds available; at least they will let you shop on the next available commissary day. You will want to purchase shampoo, soap and soap holder, toothbrush and toothbrush holder, toothpaste, aspirin, stamps, a pad of paper, and a laundry bag to hold your commissary items each week, and anything else you will need to get through the week. If it’s winter, get a sweatshirt, sweatpants, and thermal undergarments. If you can afford it, also get a plain t-shirt. Don’t depend on the prison providing these basics—if they do, you may not want to use them.

Some money transfer companies will only deposit money into your commissary account once you have physically arrived at your prison, and once you’ve been checked in. You can check that here.

Read the instructions carefully for any money transfer company you want to use.

How to Get Money into Your Account
Your family must wire money or send it electronically into your account. Do not show up with cash or a check. Do not let your family send cash or a check. Neither will be accepted. Do not send money directly to the prison—all inmate funds are processed through a national lockbox in Washington D.C.

Currently there are a couple of companies you can use:

MoneyGram: ExpressPayment allows you to send money electronically.

  • Funds are received and processed seven days per week, including holidays.
  • Funds sent between 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST are posted within 2-4 hours.
  • Funds sent after 9:00 p.m. EST are posted at 7:00 a.m. EST the following morning.
  • Your family will need to read the instructions carefully, and be prepared with the information required (inmate’s ID number, name at time of conviction, location, at a minimum).
  • Money can be sent either online or at a MoneyGram location.
  • The fees will probably be around $12.00.

Western Union: Your family can send funds electronically using Western Union’s Quick Collect Program.

  • Western Union’s procedures are similar to MoneyGram‘s, above.
  • Payment can also be made over the phone. Call 1-800-634-3422 and choose option 2.
  • If payment is made with a credit card, extra processing fees will apply; no fees apply if payment is made with a debit card.
  • Fees can range dramatically, from $5.00 to $15.00.

To send money to an inmate being held at a privately managed facility, contact the facility or contract operator.

Now then, just what can you use the money in your account for?
Three things: Commissary, email, and telephone calls.

What is commissary? A prison commissary is a store within a correctional facility, from which inmates may purchase products such as hygiene items, snacks, writing instruments, etc. Spices, including those packaged with instant ramen noodles, are a popular item due to the bland nature of prison food. This is not a physical store that you shop with a basket. You’ll fill out a preprinted list of items, and on your designated commissary day you’ll submit your list and after a while, collect your items. If you don’t have enough money in your commissary account, you won’t get everything on your “shopping” list. Be careful about this, because it really annoys the commissary correctional officer to have to spend extra time on your order. Figure it out ahead of time. The exact items carried at a commissary vary a bit from location to location. Sample commissary lists are available on the Bureau of Prison’s website—a sample of Victorville’s list is here.

The Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS) application enables electronic messages to be exchanged between an inmate, their family, and the general public in a secure manner.

Funding for the email program is provided entirely by the Inmate Trust Fund, which is maintained by profits from inmate purchases of commissary products, telephone services, and the fees you pay for using TRULINCS. Yes, you pay a fee to be able to use email, and if you don’t have the money in your account, you won’t be able to use the system.

You must be approved to use the system. People who you want to communicate with must give their permission to do so.

Inmates’ access to TRULINCS is controlled, and inmates do not have access to the internet.

Each telephone call costs money, which comes out of your commissary account. You also have a limited number of calling minutes available for you to use each month. If you run out of money or minutes, you won’t be able to use the telephone system.

Remember that all calls are recorded and monitored. You may have to submit a list of phone numbers you’ll be calling, and wait for them to be approved. Some prisons may still require that you call a landline only, not a cell phone—but frankly, it’s difficult for them to tell, and fairly impractical in today’s world.

The usual practice is to simply place your call (during designated free time hours), the person you are calling will acknowledge they understand the call is coming from a prison, and you can talk as long as you want—as long as you have the minutes and money available. It’s best, once you’ve grown acclimated a bit, to plan out how many minutes you can use each day, or how often you plan to call the outside world. There are usually lines of inmates waiting to use the telephone, so be prepared to wait and to know your place in the line.

A set dollar amount per minute is deducted from your account at the end of the phone call. The FCC has ruled to reduce the cost of calls originating from prisons; that may take place this year…or not. Calls can range from approximately $2.95 to $3.15 for a 15-minute call.

You can also place collect calls, but they are hideously expensive, and cannot be received on a cell phone. Jails typically only allow collect calls, and they are also used more in state prisons.

What about state prisons and jails?

While many procedures are the same—a prison is a prison, after all—state prisons frequently have a big advantage over federal prisons: They allow your family to send care packages from a select list of items, through a dedicated third-party company. We’ll go into more detail on that in our next article.

Again, let’s look at California. Every California state prison has a commissary that provides inmates a bank-type account for inmate monies and for purchasing things not issued by the prison.

Friends, family, or other people can add money to an inmate’s commissary account using Western Union or by mail. If sent by mail, the funds have to be in the form of a money order made out to the inmate’s full committed name (your name at the time of your conviction) and complete eight-digit register ID number. Use a post office money order, since all non-postal money orders processed through the national lockbox will be subject to a 15-day hold period, during which time you will not be credited the funds. Inconvenient! The Bureau of Prisons will return to the sender funds that do not have valid inmate information if the envelope has a return address. Do not send cash. Do not send personal checks.

In order to send email to an inmate at a state prison your family must follow a specific process to make sure that the email letter gets to you. Check with your facility to see what procedures they have, and if they offer email.

Your family can also use an instant-letter service (for a fee, of course) like Email to Inmates, or LetterQuick. It’s basically an email that gets printed out in the prison mailroom (don’t count on quick service, certainly not instant service), and delivered to the inmate, most likely with regular mail call. The fees are inexpensive, and be aware that there’s a character limit for each letter.

Telephone services are basically the same as in federal prisons.

In some locations, calling cards may be allowed, though I suspect that would only be for inmates in solitary. Calling cards, like stamps, could (illegally) be used in lieu of cash and for barter.

Collect calls are more the norm in state prisons, though that mostly likely varies from state to state.

In California, your family can also set up a prepaid account, AdvancePay, and not have to use the more expense collect call system. There is a set-up fee of about $5.00, and your family can manage the funds online. They can also use AdvancePay to fund your commissary account.

You can also use a service like Jail Talk, currently available only in Hawaii, from PayDayHawaii. Correctional facilities take longer to catch up with modern technology. Jails and prisons typically require all outgoing inmate calls to be collect calls, and cellular phones cannot receive collect calls. Even prisons that allow an inmate to use money in his commissary account to be used for phone calls will not generally approve cell phone numbers.

The rates charged by prisons and telephone companies are outrageously expensive. As well, telephone companies will simply not allow customers with poor credit to accept collect calls. With JailTalk™, calls that would normally be long distance are now less expensive. And it’s easy for you and your family to manage your spending and to make payments.

Using JailTalk™, your family can simply give you your JailTalk Number (JTN), and you’ll be able to call them direct, through the collect-call system. Inmates place all calls using the JTN, which is displayed as the caller ID when your family’s phone rings. When they answer the phone, they’ll hear the standard collect-call prompt from the jail or prison. The collect call can be accepted by pressing the number requested by the recording to accept the call. The prepaid account will be debited for any connection fees or long-distance fees that might apply. Your family can receive collect calls on cell phones, landline phones, and Internet phone service (VOIP) like Skype using the regular JailTalk™ service.

JailTalk™ currently provides services to friends and family of inmates serving in Hawaii jails and prisons. Connections are routed through PayDayHawaii’s Honolulu office for quality control.

For more answers to more questions
An extremely helpful website is Run by families of inmates, and former inmates, it covers all topics within state and federal prison systems. It’s a good way to prepare for entry into prison, a good support system for families with questions, and a good resource for almost-real-time coverage of incidents at prisons (lock-downs, etc.).

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