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Behind Bars: Low wages for prisoners makes inmates appreciate the little things

By Brian Wood, Behind Bars Columnist - | Nov 14, 2016

Every three months the education department at the prison in Gunnison treats its inmate-tutors to a pint of ice cream, popcorn and a movie. It’s not only a nice gesture of appreciation; in many of the volunteers’ cases, it’s the reason they teach classes.

It might sound silly to people outside these walls, but prisoners will work for months for a little ice cream. It’s amazing how much more you value things when you are deprived of them.

About this time of year prisoners look forward to a little paper with our commissary receipts listing new items that will be available for the holidays — mostly snack items. Along with this list always comes a list of price increases that just so happen to be on the most-purchased items.


The dollar inside prison has less purchasing power due to the inflated prices the prison charges inmates for commissary items. For example: $0.40 for a ramen noodle or “soup”, or $5.35 for 8 oz of shredded pork. This is the case despite the fact that the standard pay for a prisoner is $0.40 an hour and jobs are hard to come by.

However, this scarcity also makes one appreciate something like a soda that much more. Some inmates refuse to work for “peanuts,” but many more are eager to work for them or any number of other snacks. It’s safe to say most of the money inmates earn from working for the prison is given right back, as inmates attempt to supplement the awful diet provided — with food and snacks off commissary that cost twice as much as they do in a competitive market.

Not only would I describe the food as bad, but if I only eat what is provided, I go hungry every day. It’s great for losing weight, but if that’s not the goal, prisoners must find other food. It’s really quite the racket.


I don’t think it would be a stretch of the imagination to say the profits made on the supplementary food would easily cover the three meals that are provided prisoners, though I doubt that’s where the money goes. I can’t think of a greater example of this unique relationship between raised prices, low wages and heightened value — due to deprivation — than the phone call.

A lot of the money spent in prison comes from the outside, and the argument can be made that some things are not meant for those without alternative resources. The prisoners that rely solely on pay from the prison can barely afford basic hygiene items and a little supplementary food, let alone things like real shoes or MP3 players with $2 songs.

This experience has helped me not take as much for granted. I definitely think I appreciate the things I have a little more. I hope that sentiment carries over when I get out.

Ingredients for nachos: $8 or 20 hours

MP3 Player with 3500 songs: $7,080 or 8.5 years

Phone call home: Priceless

Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 35 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.


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