By Matt Clarke
The sheriff of Dallas County, Texas had a good reason for giving prepaid debit cards to prisoners containing the balance of their trust fund accounts when they were released from jail.
“There was too much money handling,” said Sheriff Lupe Valdez.
The cards contain the funds the prisoners had with them when they were booked into the facility, plus any money they received during their incarceration, less what they spent at the jail’s commissary. But Valdez and the Dallas County Commissioners were surprised to learn that the debit cards come with fees, and that prisoners who use the cards are charged for accessing their own money.
The issue came to light when former prisoner Steve Mathis addressed the commissioners at the end of their first regular meeting in January 2013, to complain about the fees. County Judge Clay Jenkins and Commissioner John Wiley Price didn’t like the idea of released prisoners having to pay debit card fees.
“But let me just tell you, it’s his money,” Price said, noting that was the first he’d heard about any fees. “He said he didn’t give us no bank card [when he was jailed], he gave us cash. He should be able to get his money back. I got a real problem if they’re being charged a fee.”
Sheriff Valdez agreed, but said she didn’t know much about the issue since Mathis was the first to complain about it. However, she promised to look into whether an ATM or kiosk could be placed in the jail complex so the debit cards could be redeemed with no fees.
One of the few highlights in the life of an inmate in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is the once-per-week privilege of going to commissary, which is the prison equivalent of the local supermarket. Since packages from family and friends are not allowed in the BOP, the commissary is an inmate’s only opportunity to get the amenities that can make serving their time more bearable.
Who Can Shop at the Commissary?
Commissary is a privilege granted to inmates at all general population institutions in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In general, all inmates that have money in their trust fund account (and who have nor already spent more than $320.00 that month) will be able to shop at commissary.
There are three exceptions to this rule:
Inmates that are serving a period on commissary restriction due to a disciplinary infraction;
Inmates that have refused to participate in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program; and
Inmates that are housed outside general population (for example, the Special Housing Unit).
Inmates that fall into these categories are limited to purchasing from a very restricted list, spending a maximum of $25.00 per month, not the regular $320.00 per month.
Federal prison inmates are now allowed to utilize a MP3 player service. This service, operated through all Federal Bureau of Prisons’ institutional commissaries and the use of the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), allows inmates to purchase 8 gigabyte MP3 players for $69 and individual songs for between $0.85 and $1.55 each.
This article explain the various components of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ MP3 player service, how inmates utilize the system, and the various components involved.
Purchasing the MP3 Player
While local policies vary, inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons are allowed to shop at the prison’s commissary several times a month (most federal prisons allow inmates to shop either once every week or biweekly). They are allowed to spend $320 per month on foods, drinks, clothing, snacks, candies, shoes, and electronics. Certain items, such as over-the-counter medications, postage stamps, and copy cards are exempt from this spending limit.
While federal prison inmates have been allowed to purchase walkman-style FM radios for many decades, they are now allowed to purchase 8 gigabyte SanDisk MP3 players for $69. These players hold around 2,100 songs, which can be purchased through the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS). They also have FM radio functionality.
Once an inmate purchases an MP3 player, they have to wait one hour, then they can connect the device to a TRULINCS computer in their housing unit and activate it. At that point, they can browse the library of songs available for purchase and make purchases.
While the days of gruel in a tin cup have long gone by for inmates confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, no one imprisoned in today’s facilities will accuse their captors of providing a five-star dining experience, either. Most federal prisoners will agree that a key component of happiness behind bars is ensuring that the food they eat is close to the latter category. Napoleon once said, “An army marches on its stomach.” A similar adage applies to prison: a well-fed prisoner is a happy prisoner.
Meals Supplied by the Federal Bureau of Prisons: The Chow Hall
Most general population BOP facilities serve three meals a day in a dedicated cafeteria-type area (the “chow hall” in prison lingo). Most chow halls offer fixed tables, usually with four to six stools bolted thereto. Inmates are permitted to choose where to sit, subject to local custom, and, of course, the ever-present peer pressure, which can be strict in nature. At some prison facilities, particularly high-security ones, where one sits is — literally — a matter of life and death. Fights over seating can be deadly.
Food is obtained via chow lines, much like at a high school cafeteria. Inmate servers, under the watchful eye of BOP food service staff, dole out servings of food onto plastic trays as inmates march through the line. Serving sizes are, at least in theory, strictly controlled, but a wink and a nod to a friend serving food can be helpful just the same.