August 12, 2014

Budgeting in Federal Prison

I struggled to master the art of budgeting in federal prison. Even as I reached the end of my term at Taft Federal Prison Camp, I was still challenged to manage my commissary and phone minutes properly.

For some background, each prisoner in the federal system receives an allotment of 300 telephone minutes on the first day of each month. That averages out to fewer than 10 minutes of telephone access per day on a 31-day month.  As I wrote above, I did not manage my telephone allowance well. Despite setting goals and restrictions on how long I would stay on the line, many events at home required that I extend my conversations beyond the daily limit.  As a consequence of my having used too many phone minutes earlier in the month, I usually ran out of minutes early.  That means I couldn’t chat with my family or friends until the new month began. The 300-minute limit was totally insufficient. A small victory comes in November and December when prisoners gets 400 phone minutes.

Besides the 300-minute phone limit, I also had to deal with a 20-point visitation limit.  Every Friday at Taft Camp costs four points, Saturday visits cost eight points and Sunday visits cost six points.  Ordinarily, that means a prisoner at Taft Camp may receive visits each Friday.  If one can only visit on a week-end, however, the prisoner must limit himself to only two or three visits per month. I did not have children who were in school as did other prisoners.  Thus I visited mostly on Fridays.

The other limitation with which I struggled concerned commissary spending limits. When I was in prison we had a budget of  $290 a month, though the number has now moved to $320. That amount includes expenditures on aspirin, medicine, toiletries and food.  The only items not included on the spending limit are stamps, e-mail, and credit for phone use.  I usually spent all of my limit by the third week of the month.

Budgeting in federal prison must now include the cost of email, something that did not exist while I was in prison. I have clients who spend several hundred dollars a month on the Corrlinks system. Indeed, living in prison is expensive!

Prisoners who expect a journey through a federal prison system must be aware of these limits and costs associated with living in prison.  It is important to budget, as without proper planning, the end of the month comes without telephone minutes, visiting points or spending limits remaining.  We may not understand the reasons for the limits, but we must learn to live and thrive in spite of them.

Justin Paperny

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