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Free, But Not Really: Hidden Prison Costs Following Incarceration

prison costs

After being asked to help someone “with their bills” who had been recently released from prison, I was shocked to find out exactly what bills they meant. I try to stay informed about issues related to financial literacy but I was woefully ignorant (and am still learning) about the real prison costs that follow incarceration.  Beyond paying their legal debt to society, many former prisoners find themselves in a financial prison that is just as difficult to overcome, and the near impossibility of getting a job upon release can leave them in a situation that is untenable.

Surprising Prison Costs

According to an article in The Atlantic, even after serving time for a felony conviction, former inmates can remain legally bound to the judicial system for the rest of their lives due to court-imposed fines and fees related to their crime.

“These debts can make it even harder for a returning citizen to rebuild their life after incarceration because, in 46 states, failure to repay them is an offense punishable by yet more incarceration.”

How Prison Debt Ensnares Offenders -- JULEYKA LANTIGUA-WILLIAMS

Pay to Stay Prison Sentances

A report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that fees where inmates can be charged for room and board, have been authorized in at least 43 states. This “offender funded” model, can mean that the prisoner is essentially responsible for their prison costs. However, the Prison Policy Institute reported in 2017, the average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001. And in five states, prisoners receive no money for work they do while in prison.

In 35 states, facilities can charge inmates for medical services. Some of these charges can be taken directly out of a prisoner’s commissary account while the person is still incarcerated. In some cases, the commissary account itself is subject to fees.

Many of the services inside prisons have been privatized as well, and something as small as a hotel-sized bar of soap that won’t last a week will cost more than a regular-sized bar on the outside. A package of Ramen noodles that goes for .10-.12 in a grocery store costs $1.00 (an 800% markup was found in some jails). For women, many jails and prisons do not supply sanitary napkins or tampons and in a commissary, they are double grocery store prices.

Many people will say, “I see no problem with that. Prisoners should pay for their crimes.” But it’s also interesting to note, the bill for incarceration is not forgiven if you’re proven innocent, if the charges are dropped, or if you’re released early for good behavior.

Fees Following a Prison Sentence

Freed prisoners are expected to pay fees or prison costs for their parole and/or probation and the interest on the unpaid portion can be extremely high, which accrues monthly, depending on the state or county. In twenty states, parole and probation are private industries and as private businesses, they set the prices without government regulation. These businesses are also their own collections agencies. Poorer families of ex-convicts struggle, very often to their own harm, to keep their loved ones out of jail or prison.

Debtors following a prison sentence cannot regain certain rights lost upon conviction until their accounts are paid in full, including the right to vote, carry a weapon, serve on juries, or run for elected office.

If you have a loved one who is about to enter (or already has entered) jail or prison, here are some of the privatized services (prices are estimated but can vary widely) that can impact family finances:

  • Email- charged per page .45-.90 cents/page with average being 3 pages
  • Phone calls $5.61 average for 15 minutes
  • Parole Fee in NC $30.00/month
  • Probation Fee in NC $40.00/month
  • Court fees $180-250/month. ($250 additional for community service)

This list is by no means exhaustive but can give you some idea of how incarceration of an individual can be far more reaching than just serving a sentence.


If you are experiencing financial difficulty and are looking for a solution, non-profit credit counseling can help you make sense of all your options. ​Contact us today for a free financial assessment with one of our certified credit counselors.

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2 Responses to Free, But Not Really: Hidden Prison Costs Following Incarceration

  1. Cathryn Villasenor says:

    Thank you 🙏🏻
    Didn’t know
    So sad

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