Monday, February 15, 2010

#32 Should you send inmates money (RETRO)

Should you give inmates money?

This folks…is a very sensitive subject.

It is also not for the faint in the subject of prison issues.

I warn you before we get started, if you are one of those folks who don’t give a damn about anybody in the prison system, you are wasting your time reading my blog. I say that because nothing I say is going to change your opinion on the idea that no inmate deserves a dime, and every inmate is a con artist looking for another soft touch.

This is also NOT for the casual reader either, because you don’t really care about these guys anyway. Of course, you can continue to read, but it would likely not be helpful intel to you, only curious reading.

But if you have someone in prison that you care (or cared) about, then we might be able to discuss this with some venues of hope and understanding.

So the question on the blog table tonight is; should you send inmates money.

This actually is a multidimensional question, because the answer cannot possibly be just a simple “yes” or “no”.

“Why can’t it? You either want to give them money or you don’t”.

No, that’s not quite how it works.

First off, you will notice that my question never said how much you could or should send, or how often. We never defined the extremities either, so you don’t know if I am talking about sending an inmate $5 this month or $500. Nor have I said whether you could send him $20 a month or $100 a month.

We also have not identified if money has any use in prison, and for what reasons. There are lots of things not mentioned in the title statement that argues the point of whether my question should be answered in a word or two.

So let’s try to tackle this with the most obvious question…do inmates really NEED money while in prison.

In the camps I have been on, there are two types of prisons when it comes to money…cash camps and card camps. Cash camps are where inmates are allowed to actually have money on hand, and card camps are where currency of any kind is prohibited, and inmates buy their canteen using a “debit-like” card.

We know that prisons in general do supply food, clothing, housing and medical attention to the inmate, so the basic needs of survival are basically met. Don’t argue with me about the quality of that, let’s just agree that it is there. So if this is true, it is easy to assume that inmates don’t really need a dime from anyone, since all their needs are taken care of, right?


Even on prison camps where these things are taken care of, there are things that inmates need…like hygiene.

“Now wait a minute, don’t they get that free too?”

Well, yeah, but what you are talking about in indigent supplies. Inmates who cannot afford to buy real canteen are given indigent supplies, or free and cheap supplies by the prison. In NC, this includes some very generic toothpaste, a cheap 4-inch toothbrush, a cheap comb, cheap lotion and other supplies. Trust me folks, it’s not even worth the dollar-bin at your local dollar store.

And many of you think that is good enough…on the must humanistic level, I would agree. But you are forgetting a very key element in incarceration that most of society never cares about…morale.

An inmate that has a few dollars is empowered to take some control of his day. Rather than having to use state soap, he can shower using REAL soap. Rather than having to eat in the chow hall, he can purchase canteen every once and awhile and splurge on himself. Rather than having to use cheap watered-down lotion, he can use some real lotion.

“What’s that got to do with morale? If he doesn’t like what he’s got, then he will think twice about going to prison!”

Yeah, I might agree in part, but it’s small thinking. YOU can say that from the comfort of your home, cursing every inmate while knowing NONE of them. But say that wearing an officer’s uniform, in the middle of prison, with about 200-500 inmates with VERY low morale, and see if that statement will get you out of prison at the end of your shift.

You see, an inmate with some money creates good morale, which keeps a better hold of peace on the camp. I didn’t say that having money will make every inmate calm and sedated, I said it gives them a better morale than if they were broke.

I compare the times I had money while in prison to times I did not, there is a clear difference. I was more frustrated with my time when I was broke, because if I had money, I could at least buy a soda or a snack to offset the stress of prison. It might not be much, but it was better than nothing.

So is money necessary? Yes, if you want a higher morale on the camp. Ask yourself this, who does their time better, a guy who never has any money, or a guy who has a couple of dollars every week? Believe me, it matters.

So we have addressed the fact that money is necessary. Don’t go twisting this to think that every inmate should have money, because money also requires a discipline, something many inmates have problems with. There were times I had no money and I was fine, it’s not like I HAVE to have money every single day. But I will argue that to NOT have money for long stretches makes it much harder to do your time.

Ok, let’s answer a few questions:

“If you said inmates need money, then how MUCH does he need”?

$1000 a week….


The real answer is very relative, because it depends on an accepted balance of what that inmate can deal with without becoming excessive. Now, if you have it to spend, then this is not an issue. If a rich family can afford to keep $500 in their son’s inmate account every week, I suppose that is cool. But most folks aren’t like that.

And let me add this too…sometimes having too much money in prison isn’t a good thing either…makes you a mark for other guys…

But I’ll use me for an example. I don’t need a ton of money in my account, especially since NC prisons only allow $40 max spending per week on card camps, and they only pay out about that much. So in theory, I could spend about $40 every week…

But that is too much. I am not saying I can’t spend it, because I can, but in my experience, I never needed to spend $40 every week. Maybe not $40 a month. To me, I needed to have money to buy a soda once a day, maybe twice a day. I could buy me about $4 or $5 worth of snacks and noodles and make it last about 2 weeks. Any foods I buy I try to make last, so it’s not like I eat it every day. I always feel better about myself if I can get better hygiene products like name-brand toothpaste, lotion, shampoo and soap.

Over the course of a month, that might be less than $20. But even that is more than I usually do. You see, this amount is based on the minimum an inmate can use to get by and remain positive. A late night snack before lights out can do wonders to a troubled spirit.

So I think a nice average might be $20 a month, but I will be honest, that can lead to the inmate assuming that they are supposed to get that every month. With this money, his standards of prison living will increase, not realizing he is basing this on someone else’s generosity. In many cases this might be purely accidental. In some cases it can be intentional.

“I don’t understand the difference”

Let’s say I am in prison and for the first few months I have no money, and work in the kitchen at 60 cents a day. Over 6 days I am making $3.60 a week. That means I have to manage that money every week to help me cope with my time. A soda every other day, some ramen noodles to store, and a few snacks to tide me over. Not much, but better than nothing.

Now let’s say mom sends me $20 each month. Now my lifestyle has changed because I have more money to work with. Now I can afford to by a soda every day, and more ramen, and even buy some real hygiene products. Things are looking up. But in that change, I also start to assume that this is the way it SHOULD be, that I should EXPECT my mom to always send $20. When I don’t get it on any month, I get worried and depressed, because I am used to spending more than I used to.

That might sound insensitive but remember, we are talking about the levels of survival in prison. Frustration in prison never leads to anything good, so as long as I have some financial control over my time, I can stay in better spirits than if I was broke. I may not be angry at not getting money more than I would be confused as to why my lifestyle has now been cut off.

Some inmates may panic, wondering why the money stopped, and they can feel like they have been betrayed or that they deserved to have that money. I didn’t say this was the right way to feel, I am saying this is how some guys might feel. I mean, nobody wants to go backwards in finances…do you?

Some guys however, do get upset because they feel that you OWE them that money, and when the money stops they try to use other means to convince you to give them more. Some might use your fear, and tell you that if they don’t get more money, some guy is going to beat them up. Some will say that they owe some guy some money, and if they don’t pay them back, then they might be in trouble. Others will say that they have to buy something and they have to have the money. Others will play on your emotions to make you think that your level of giving is equal to your love of him… so if you LOVE him, you’d send him some money.

There are a LOT of very dirty handed tricks that inmates can use… and do use often.

“So how can I know if he is using me or if he appreciates what I send”?

Well, first off, what you send must be 100% based on what you WANT to send. If an inmate wants $50 and you want to send him $10, then send $10...don’t split the difference. It’s YOUR money, not his. Lots of people will say to never send an inmate any money…I don’t agree because those people never identified WHO that inmate is. Are you telling a mom to not send her son a few dollars? You’re not qualified to say that. Are you telling a wife or girlfriend not to send her man some money? You’re not qualified to say that either.

Now, as far as pen pals, that might have some legit angles, but it is still based on what that person wants to send. I mean, if a pen pal has been writing to an inmate for a few years, and wants to send him a few dollars, I would imagine she trusts him enough to do that.

But you still must be cautious to know if he is using you or not. How can you tell? To me, you can tell in his actions… not just what he says, but his ACTIONS. If an inmate is always trying to get you to send him a few dollars, using different excuses, then he may well be using you. If he is always talking about how broke he is, he may be using your sympathy to get money.

But don’t confuse his chronicling of prison as some subliminal message for money. I can tell you how difficult it was for me in prison in all honesty without asking for money, even if it does include be being broke. After all, that is part of the stress.

Look for the pattern of his actions to determine what he is about. I am not going to fault a guy for asking for a few dollars once or twice, especially if it is ONLY a few dollars.

“Yeah but what if it’s only a few dollars from a bunch of people?”

Well, if you already KNOW that, then you already have your answer. Lots of people think that every inmate has 20 women sending him money every week… I am sure there are a few like that, but not every guy is like that.

Here’s something else you can do…make part of your conversation with him about what he uses money for. You don’t have to know how every penny is spent, just make it part of the conversation. Heck, if someone sent me money, I’d be glad to tell them how I spent it.

“But what if they are lying?”

The look for the patterns. Most guys will be caught in a lie when they are creating excuses to get more money. It turns into a, “I thought you said you were buying a radio with the money I sent you, why do you need more money?” If it means that much to know how he is spending his money, do one of two things…either make a deal with him to MAIL you his commissary list or receipts…or stop sending him money altogether.

But the basic rule of thumb is this…when in doubt, stop sending money.

“But what if he gets upset?”

Then he needs to learn to deal with it. It’s not his money to get upset about, and you don’t OWE him that. Sometimes inmates forget that them getting money is based on someone else’s generosity. And those who send that money have to work and pay bills. Many times inmates forget that, and assume that you should always be able to send them money.

I’ll be honest, when my mom didn’t send me money for a few months, I was stressed out. I wasn’t mad at her, I was confused because I didn’t understand why I have not received anything. Life was harder for me because I had nothing to lean on when I had a rough day, and with no money, there were some very difficult times. I knew she had bills to pay, my heart KNEW that, but my mind was in prison and I could not fully accept that mom could not send me a few dollars.

In other ways, this is what someone may go through in prison when the money stops. Some take it in stride, thankful for what the were able to get, others get upset because the money stopped flowing to them. Still others try to manipulate people to keep the money coming.

As you can easily see, this isn’t an easy issue to tackle, unless you have no stock in the issue. Any person with nobody in prison can easily give you an answer and just say, “don’t send them anything. They broke the law, let them pay for it.” that sounds logical, but it is totally biased. A mother with a son in prison, or a wife with a husband in prison, or a girlfriend with a boyfriend in prison will see it much more sympathetically.

So, SHOULD you give inmates money? Let me put it this way…

If you know him well enough, and really care about him, then yes, BUT if you do, maintain complete control of what you send, and keep the amounts reasonable to what you can afford. NEVER, EVER risk your bills or your standard of living to send an inmate money. If you have a bill of $100 and only $150 left on your person, don’t send that inmate anything…YOU come first. Keep that $50 for yourself for any emergencies and other things you want to do.

Be careful if he continues to ask for money and every now and then ask what he does with the money. If you have ANY doubts, stop sending money and see how he reacts. If he tries to manipulate you to send him money, or is trying to use sympathy, then you may have your answer. But remember not to punish him if he mentions that prison is harder without money…because it IS harder. Not every inmate is trying to use people like ATM machines…some are just trying to do their time as best they can.

Most guys are very appreciative to have a few dollars, and are very thankful to those that send it, but if you are not getting joy out of helping him, then the entire gift of generosity may be in error. Simply put, if you feel burdened by sending money, stop sending money. But if you feel happy that someone you care about has spending money, then that is really all that matters, isn’t it?

I mean, if is YOUR money…do what you want with it.

Oh well, gotta run, email me at derf4000 (at) embarqmail (dot) com.

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