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Behind Bars: The stuff you collect in prison makes all the difference

By Brian Wood, Behind Bars Columnist - | Dec 11, 2017

“Another day, another dollar.”

That saying is literal with regards to the workday for many prisoners. When I head back to my housing unit after a day at work, it feels like I am heading home. When I first came to prison my cell felt like a jail cell — empty. But over time I’ve accumulated some stuff. Having a few meager possessions in one’s cell can make all the difference.

Prison is quite different from jail that way. Prisoners have stuff, even the ones who have to survive solely on their prison salary. For a while I was completely indigent, but I got a job and shortly after was fortunate to receive charity from friends. It’s like anywhere else; having money makes things more comfortable.

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A television is considered a must have in prison. Prisoners save up for months to purchase/rent one. The TV the prison provides is close to worthless on the outside; it would probably run you $25 for a similarly cheaply made 13″ TV. In here it costs an inmate $200 for a deposit, and there is a monthly rental fee of $11. This is not a cable or satellite fee, which are not available in prison, but it’s totally worth it.

Speaking of great buys, I think my favorite purchase was a rug that I bought for $15, which I use as my pillow. I’ve seen prisoners use their state-issued coat as a pillow rather than the unyielding plastic squares the prison calls a pillow. But I tried and that, and it doesn’t compare to the rug-pillow.

The most expensive thing in here is MP3 players, or more specifically, music. Prisoners pay $1.99 per song and I’ve seen more than 1,500 songs on one – you do the math. With exorbitant prices and the time prisoners spend here, it’s not unrealistic to say some prisoners own thousands of dollars “worth” of stuff.

At any time, a prisoner can lose it all – everything they have spent years working for. When a prisoner is “countied-out,” they cannot take most of their belongings with them, only hygiene. This prisoner was sick. He even had to leave a couple hundred dollars worth of food behind, though that’s not all that much when you consider that pork is almost $1 an ounce. In fact, a lot of the stuff I have I got from a cellie who was told one night to “roll up,” because he was heading to a county jail.

I’ve accumulated quite a bit of stuff since I’ve been here. I have a clock radio, a hot pot, and storage containers, just to name some of it. I have clothes for working out, clothes for cold weather, and multiple pairs of shoes. I’m a big fan of condiments, mostly because the food is horrible, so I have acquired just about every kind available on commissary, and I have ordered some as part of an incentive program for working at Education. When I walk out the door I’m not taking any of it with me, except for the clothes I’ll be wearing.

It’s actually considered a real jerk move to take your belongings with you. When you think about the value of a pair of shoes to a prisoner versus your average joe, it makes sense. In here a nice pair of Nike Air Max’s could easily cost a prisoner three months of their salary. I’d compare shoes in here to cars out there, some are just functional and some are used as a status symbol. I promised my shoes to someone months ago. They aren’t the best, but like a lot of junk in here, they are valued.

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 25 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.


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