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Why Do Inmates Need Money?

07 Sep 2022, Prison Rules, by

This week’s blog post is all about inmates and money. Specifically, it’s about why inmates in prison need money at all. After all, they get everything provided to them, right? We get a lot of questions about this topic here at PrisonInsight. I have written about this myself in the past, but it’s been almost… Continue reading Why Do Inmates Need Money?

Why Do Inmates Need Money? - Prison Insight

This week’s blog post is all about inmates and money. Specifically, it’s about why inmates in prison need money at all. After all, they get everything provided to them, right?

We get a lot of questions about this topic here at PrisonInsight. I have written about this myself in the past, but it’s been almost a decade since I was sentenced to prison, and it’s been more than five years since I walked out.

So, instead of me attempting to recall random anecdotes from my time behind bars, I decided to reach out to a current prison inmate and let her answer this question.

For this post, our guest blogger is Mistie Vance. She is currently serving a 20-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and armed criminal action at Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe, Missouri. She’s been in prison for more than a decade, and is not scheduled for parole until 2025. 

I became good friends with Mistie when we served time together at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. She was my personal trainer and my aerobics instructor, and we often spent time together on smoke breaks or in the prison yard. 

She is an amazing lady, and I’m sure that our readers would love to hear from her, especially since she has much more up-to-date insider info. To that end, here is Mistie’s answer to today’s question: why do inmates need money? 

In this blog post, Mistie will cover the following topics:

  • Inmates need money for a better quality of life
  • What items do prisons issue to inmates?
  • Why do inmates need to buy clothes?
  • The importance of tennis shoes
  • The luxury of avoiding the chow hall
  • What items can inmates buy at the canteen?
  • If no sends an inmate money, how do they survive?

Inmates need money for a better quality of life

Inmates may not need money for survival in prison. But in order to live a better quality of life, it is certainly helpful. Where things like khaki uniforms and three meals a day are provided by the state, other things one finds necessary in the free world are not. 

Warm clothing for winters spent trekking to and from work and meals, cool clothing for summers in the blistering heat… the late night snack when it’s bedtime and you’re too hungry to sleep because dinner has worn off, and it’s still nine hours until breakfast. These are a few of the things that having money in prison can provide.

What items do prisons issue to inmates?

Upon arriving at the correctional facility, you are issued several things. Here’s a list of what I got when I arrived at WERDCC, and then again when I was transferred to CCC.

  • Five pairs of khaki shirts
  • Five pairs of khaki pants
  • Five pairs of granny panties
  • Five itchy bras that are made for a shape of boobs that don’t exist
  • Two scratchy towels
  • Two tiny washcloths
  • Two stiff sheets
  • Two thin blankets
  • A pair of pajamas
  • A pair of the most uncomfortable boots you have ever tried putting your feet into

You are also given a tiny toothbrush, toothpaste that leaves your mouth feeling dirtier than before you brushed, a comb, a bar of harsh soap, some shampoo that leaves your hair feeling like straw, and clear deodorant that increases the smell of your body odor. These are the luxuries that we are afforded in prison.

Why do inmates need to buy clothes?

One might ask why we need to buy clothing in prison if we are given clothes to wear? Imagine wearing a tent everywhere you go 24/7, and you can start to understand. Add to that seasonal differences in temperature, and we get into a whole other level of discomfort. 

Take for instance the extreme cold of winter. In order to go about one’s daily routine in a prison like the one that I am housed in, you have to spend a fair amount of time outside walking to and from different locations—work, medline, meals, and recreation being just a few. 

The only warm article of clothing we are issued is a state coat, and believe me, they are not very warm! The air blows up through your sleeves and the bottom of the coat, and if it’s snowing, the snow finds its way down your neck with ease. 

If you have to spend any length of time standing or working outside, it doesn’t take long for your entire body to turn into a human popsicle and begin shaking like a leaf in the wind! Picture one of those pitiful dogs in the ASPCA commercial, and you’ll see what I’m talking about!

Along with the state coat, we are issued a stocking cap, but no gloves, leaving one’s hands painfully exposed unless they have the funds to be able to buy gloves of their own. 

The canteen also offers warm fleece jackets that can be worn alone or under the state coat to make it warm and toasty, for the right price, of course. Other clothing items that can be purchased include cotton pants and shorts (great for the heat of summer and for working out), sweatpants and shirts, long and short sleeve tee shirts, boxer briefs, lightweight jackets, and fleece outfits. 

Being able to afford such luxuries as these not only gives inmates a sense of comfort in such an uncomfortable place, but also reminds us that we are still human, and that our lives matter too.

The importance of tennis shoes

One of the most important items that can be purchased by inmates is a pair of tennis shoes. If you have ever had the privilege of putting your feet into a pair of state-issued boots, you know exactly what I mean! 

Imagine the most uncomfortable pair of shoes you have ever worn and multiply it by one hundred, and you will have an understanding of what it’s like to walk around everywhere in a pair of state boots. 

Even the cheapest made pair of tennis shoes known to man (which is basically what we have the option of buying), is like walking on clouds in comparison! 

Since so much of our lives is spent on our feet, it really makes a huge difference in our quality of life to have footwear that isn’t excruciating and detrimental to proper care of one’s feet.

The luxury of avoiding the chow hall

Another reason inmates like to have money in prison is to buy food from the canteen. Besides being rather sparing and unpalatable, prison meals lack several things we enjoy experiencing in the free world—chips, chocolate, ice cream, soda.

An important part of the human experience is having opportunities to savor every little thing. Food is one of the few freedoms we are still afforded in prison, and as such is very important. Even items like coffee, creamer, and sugar must be purchased off the canteen and are therefore not a luxury that just anyone can afford. 

It is also important to consider that mealtimes are only three specific times a day. So, if you aren’t hungry when they are offered and are hungry when they aren’t, you will remain hungry until the next opportunity, unless you have food items in your locker that were purchased in the canteen. 

What items can inmates buy at the canteen?

Besides food and clothing items, other things that can be purchased at the canteen include legal items, stamps, and envelopes to write letters to loved ones. You can also buy hygiene items, cosmetics, and electronics. 

There are also blow dryers available for purchase, so your hair doesn’t freeze in winter if you have to leave the house after a shower. A light is also available, so you can stay up late studying for a test or writing an important letter.

If you’re really blessed, you can buy your own personal television to help unwind after a stressful day, living and working around thousands of other women. 

These things may not be necessary for survival, but they are certainly things that make the ups and downs of life seem a little easier to bear.

If no one sends an inmate money, how do they survive?

For many inmates, “three hots and a cot” is as good as it gets in here. The state pays us eight dollars and fifty cents a month, unless you owe money on your books. If that’s the case, you get five dollars a month while the rest goes against what you owe. 

It’s enough for a phone call or two, a stamp or two, and maybe some shampoo and conditioner to keep your hair from tangling so bad. One month, you can get some hair ties, and maybe the next, you can get some Vaseline for your feet. 

Some offenders are able to get jobs that pay ten or twenty dollars a month, but the jobs are few and far between. If you are in education or have health issues, these jobs are not an option. 

For some, family and friends help carry them throughout their incarceration, while others use “tricks”—men that female inmates will call and have pretend relationships with for money. It’s kind of like the prison version of catfishing.

I have chosen to be thankful for little rather than violate my personal code of ethics in such a way. Maybe I’ve made that decision now because I wasn’t always honorable in my life before prison. 

Whatever we have done to get here, whatever bad decisions we have made, we are not the product of our past mistakes. We are mothers and daughters, wives and friends. We are human, and as such, deserving of the chance to live our lives in here in the best way we are able. 

In order to live our best lives, it is essential to have at least a little money in prison. I hope that this helps you understand why an inmate would need money in prison, and will inspire compassion in those who have the opportunity to help someone they care about who is in prison. 

Remember, investing in humanity is an investment with returns that are priceless. 

Would you like to write to Mistie Vance or contribute to her canteen fund? If you would like to deposit money into her account, you can do so at Select Missouri — Chillicothe Correctional Center — Inmate #1231904 Mistie Vance. 

You can also write to her at:

Mistie Vance #1231904
3151 Litton Road
Chillicothe, MO 64601


Personal Experience Essay by inmate Mistie Vance at CCC in Chillicothe, MO