When he first arrived at Eastern Correctional Facility, in the spring of 2010, Juan wasn’t too concerned about his personal finances. After all, he thought, wasn’t the prison system going to provide him with “three hots and a cot”, if nothing else? It only took him a few days and several trips to the facility’s mess hall, to realize that this was not going to be the case. Mess hall portions were meager and food was of poor quality, when not altogether inedible. Because of that, he learned, most of his peers were spending hundreds of dollars per month just to purchase extra food at the prison commissary store. In addition to food, Juan needed to spend money to buy basic hygiene products, such as shampoo and deodorant, which the facility did not provide. Finally, there was the cost of keeping in touch with his loved ones on the outside: Securus Technology, the largest prison telecommunication company in the nation, charged New York prisoners $0.65c for a 15-minute phone call, and $0.25c for a single e-mail. Between food, hygiene, and phone calls home, Juan estimated spending approximately $350 during his first month of incarceration, plus another $375 to pay off his surcharges, those mandatory court fees imposed on every person convicted of a crime or violation in New York. By the time he came home, in the summer of 2019, Juan had spent over $30,000. With prison jobs in New York State paying between $0,10-$0,61 per hour – amounting to an average monthly wage of about $30 – most of that bill was footed by his mother, who sent money to his commissary and his Securus account every month.

Juan was one of the first people we interviewed in the Fall of 2019 as part of a study on the financial costs of incarceration in New York State. Between October 2019 and May 2021, our team at NYU Prison Education Program (PEP) Research Lab interviewed over sixty people who, like Juan, had recently been released from prison in the state, trying to account for every dollar they, and their families, had to spend to cover basic needs while incarcerated. What we found was that Juan’s spending habits were not at all extravagant: on average, people we interviewed reported spending about $310 per month, over $3700 per year, just to get by in prison. Like Juan, most everyone we talked to were unable to cover those costs by solely relying on in-prison employment, or even on whatever informal income people generated through various “side-hustles” in the prison informal economy. Almost everybody, instead, had to rely on whatever financial support their loved ones were able to muster, further stretching what were often already limited household’s resources. This situation has resulted in a massive transfer of resources from working class, and disproportionately Black and Brown, communities to carceral institutions – over 2.9 billion per year, according to calculations by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Our research goes beyond the simple accounting of expropriation, however significant; we have explored as well its consequences for the everyday life of the incarcerated. In a recent article, for instance, we reconstruct how the continuing commodification of prisoners’ basic needs, increased by fiscal austerity policies and the privatization of state services, produces new forms of social and economic hierarchies inside the prison. Incarcerated individuals’ access to economic capital determines their ability to meet basic needs inside the prison, and to maintaining a sense of dignity in the face of punishment. In addition to supplementing inadequate mess-hall meals, the extra food they purchase at commissary allowed interviewees to build a sense of community, by cooking and sharing meals or celebrating special occasions together, and to keep some connection with the outside world, by retaining old eating habits, for instance. Sitting at the bottom of the prison socio-economic hierarchy, on the other hand, indigent inmates are left more exposed to the harshest forms of material deprivation, including hunger, as well as to the symbolic harms of penal confinement.

In a related essay, part of a special dossier on debt and incarceration in the South Atlantic Quarterly, we analyze another phenomenon linked to austerity and budget cuts in the corrections system, namely the multiple forms of labor that prisoners themselves perform to fill the gaps in institutional commitments. Some of that labor is extracted directly by the prison administration, as when inmates are forced to work to ensure the facility’s maintenance and operations—scrubbing floors, staffing mess halls and other key operations, and maintaining prison grounds, among other tasks. Most of it, however, is carried out in the context of the prison’s informal economy, in which individuals buy and sell, goods, gifts, and services the prison doesn’t provide. When he worked as head cook in his facility’s mess hall, for instance, Juan moonlighted by smuggling food items out of the kitchens and reselling them in his housing unit. This allowed him to make some additional income, thus easing the financial pressure on his family, while also circulating some much-needed extra food items in the prison economy, at a lower price than what people would have paid for them at the commissary store. While the prison administration formally forbids such practices, and officers do occasionally crack down on them, the system ultimately relies on these informal exchanges to feed, clothe, and care for the incarcerated population.

The picture of the neo-liberal American prison that emerges from these studies differ in several respects from the one offered in much recent literature, including the criminological tradition rooted in Marxist political economy. Starting with the seminal work of Loïc Wacquant, Marxist theorists have tended to see the contemporary US prison as no longer a training camp for recalcitrant industrial workers, much less a place for contemplation and reform, but as essentially a “human warehouse”, a holding pen for the growing ranks of surplus labor. The paradigm of the human warehouse, while a powerful analogy for critical thinking on prisons, only captures one side of the story of US mass incarceration. The prison we see through interviews with men like Juan is certainly isolating and extractive, but it is also buzzing with life and labor, with gifts and goods, with acts of great creativity and cruelty. It is a dynamic economic and social world, porous to life outside, one we are only beginning to grasp.

Tommaso Bardelli is a Senior Research Fellow at NYU Prison Education Program (PEP) Research Lab. Zach Gillespie is an undergraduate student at NYU and a student research with the PEP Research Lab. Thuy Linh Tu is Professor of American Studies at NYU.

To read more, see: Tommaso Bardelli, Zach Gillespie, and Thuy Linh Tu (2022). “Surviving Austerity: Commissary Stores, Inequality, and Punishment in the Contemporary American Prison.” Punishment and Society. See also: Tommaso Bardelli, Zach Gillespie, and Thuy Linh Tu (2022). “You need money to live in prison: Everyday Strategies of Survival in the American Neo-liberal Prison.” South Atlantic Quarterly.

Image: Acroterion via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)