For most prisoners, economics is all about getting by until the next canteen delivery day. This usually comes weekly in public sector nicks, although I’ve heard of private jails where there are two deliveries each week.
The term ‘canteen’ might suggest that there is a little shop where cons can buy essentials. In fact, some old lags have told me that that was once the case, years ago. Now, however, a two-sided A4 sheet gets slipped under your cell door and you have about 24 hours to mark on it what you’d like to purchase. On the top of the sheet it gives the balance on what is known as your ‘spends account’. That simply means the amount you have available to spend that week.
|Typical prison canteen sheet (out of date prices)|
Spends consist of three elements. There is the so-called ‘bang-up’ money (basically £2.50 per week which accrues at the rate of 50p per day Monday to Friday). This is paid to all prisoners and basically covers the cost of renting the TV at £1 per week (50p in a shared cell) – assuming the cons is not on Basic regime – plus maybe a shower gel (£1.00) or a few packs of instant noodles (35p a pop). It can also be used to purchase payphone credits in £1 units or a couple of stamps.
The second element of spends consist of prison ‘wages’ for those inmates who have a job. This can range from £8.00 a week up to around £16.00, depending on the prison wagescales and the type of job, as well as whether working outside normal hours or at weekends is required.
Where establishments have external contracts, such as picking and packing canteen items for DHL, a few lucky cons can earn up to £25.00 a week. A very small number on piecework activities – such as machine shops – can earn a bit more, maybe up to £40.00 per week, but those jobs aren’t common. Another lucrative role is cleaning up hazardous materials: blood, vomit, excrement. This requires specialist training and some industrial cleaners can net £50.00 a time for cleaning and decontaminating a cell where another inmate has just committed suicide. It’s very grim work and I don’t begrudge them the cash.
I’d estimate the average prison wage is about £10.00 a week. Retired or long-term disabled prisoners usually receive a flat-rate of about £8.50 per week.
The third element of spends is only relevant if an individual prisoner has private cash on his or her prison account. This can be money sent in by family or friends, or transferred in if an inmate has cash assets outside. One of the inconsistencies of the system is that state benefits, including state pensions, are stopped and forfeited when a person comes into custody. However, private pensions are still payable, so if you’re a wealthy banker in for fraud or insider trading, you’ll get your cash. Workers in the public sector, take note!
Of course, there are strict limits on how much private cash each prisoner is allowed to spend each week. This is based on the individual’s status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. Convicted prisoners who are on the Enhanced level are able to spend up to £25.50 per week on top of their prison wages. Prisoners on Standard level can access £15.50 a week, while those on Entry level (in theory the first two weeks) can access £10.00. For those on Basic level, the weekly spend is just £4.00.
Remand prisoners get more generous allowances – bearing in mind that they haven’t even been tried or convicted. Those on Enhanced level can spend up to £51.00 per week, those on Standard up to £47.50, Entry level up to £35.00 even the Basic boys get to spend up to £22.00 of their own cash.
So assuming you have at least your average prison wage of – say £10.00 – how do you budget? Television rental money is deducted at source, so you are either £1.00 or 50p (single or shared cell) down to start with. Then there is the issue of whether you phone home on the wing payphones. Credit is bought in units of £1.00 and the average call in the UK costs about 40p. Planning to send a letter home (in addition to the one free 2nd class prison letter you can post a week)? That’s another 60p for the stamp.
The next consideration is whether you smoke. If so, then half an ounce (12.5g) of cheap rolling tobacco is going to set you back £4.00 or so. Since an estimated 80 percent of adult male prisoners smoke, that is probably going to be a priority item on the weekly canteen order.
What else is on offer via the canteen? Toiletries are popular. Some prisons have recently stopped issuing basic toiletries – such as toothpaste – so assuming you want to keep yourself clean and hygienic, you’ll need to shell out for shower gel, shampoo, toothpaste and so on.
After that, there’s a range of basic groceries on offer: sugar, coffee, instant noodles, tinned tuna, tomato ketchup. All of these items cost at least as much as they do outside, often almost double as there are no ‘special offers’ such as buy one get one free, or three for two. The current price war between the major supermarkets hasn’t yet had any impact on the prices charged by DHL (the Prison Service approved supplier) and agreed with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).
It’s clear from the above that the average prisoner’s income of about £10.00 per week isn’t going to go far. There are large numbers of inmates who do survive on this, or even less. Some even have skills that enable them to run small (and unauthorised) businesses inside the nick.
|Prison barber: never short of canteen goodies|
A good barber will never go hungry in the slammer. If he has invested wisely in a decent set of electric hair clippers from Argos, then he will never be short of willing customers who will pay a tin of tuna (£1.35) or a couple bars of chocolate (£1.00) for a decent haircut. I’ve even known cons who have trained as professionals set up mini-salons in their pads (cells), complete with an improvised shoulder-cape made from an old prison bedsheet.
Others develop craft skills and can make up small decorative boxes or photo frames out of hundreds of matchsticks. Good prison art is often very saleable to other cons who pay in canteen goods or make arrangements with their families to have postal orders sent to the maker’s prison account (not officially permitted, but it happens all the time). Some craftsmen even offer convenient credit terms with weekly instalments.
|Prison matchstick art|
Then there are the usual blaggers who work in the kitchens or stores who – in return for a small consideration – can sort out new, clean prison kit, or sheets or other items that aren’t generally available to your average con.
Alternatively, plenty of prisoners get money sent in from friends or family. If you stand in any queue for the payphones on a prison wing you can’t help overhearing the regular pleas for extra funds from the bank of mum or dad, or their partner. Unfortunately, at least some of this cash is likely to be spent on illicit drug deals or buying hooch.
The class system is alive and well in prison, but it’s based almost entirely on spending power. When Chris Grayling observes that prisoners can buy books for themselves, he’s probably referring to those in the minority who have a good prison job, who have £25.50 available each week from their private cash account and whose family can keep the money coming in. I doubt that he’s even given a thought to pensioners, or disabled prisoners struggling to survive on £8.50, or cons in prisons where there are very few jobs available who are banged up with £2.50 a week (and that’s before the TV rental is deducted). Makes you think, doesn’t it?