Financial Troubles in Prison

Guest Writer

Wilfred Hudson

Saving money in prison is difficult, but it is an important way for a person to have some financial security when he is released. Having a bank account is widely regarded as the first step toward financial security. Behind these prison walls, outside of public view, many inmates feel that it is pointless to attempt to save money. In the 1980s, the Minnesota Deparment of Corrections (MN DOC) developed a plan which allowed incarcerated individuals to establish a savings account, in order to have some funding when they are released from prison. This plan was beneficial to inmates’ service time because the DOC [Department of Corrections] believed that having money upon being released from prison would contribute to lower rates of recidivism. 

Part of this plan is called a “gate fee.” A gate fee automatically takes a portion of the income from an inmate’s paycheck from working at their job within the prison, and puts it in a gate fee fund to ensure the inmate has money saved for their release date. In the 1980s, the required gate fee amount to be saved was $100. In the 1990s it was increased to $300. Today, the required amount is $500. Since 2008, the DOC has added three more accounts. These are called “Inmate “Trust Accounts,” which are not mandatory, but which are provided to help inmates who want separate accounts for spending, saving, and holding. (Hold Accounts are used by the facility to hold funds until release, discharge, or for other authorized reasons such as use during outside medical appointments.)

I wanted to learn more about how current Stillwater inmates feel about saving money while incarcerated, particularly if they find it challenging to save. Three individuals agreed to be interviewed. One interviewee, Harvey Kneifl, said he would love to start saving his money but it is challenging for a number of reasons. Kneifl’s job at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater pays $0.25 an hour. He gets paid $15.00 gross every two weeks; 5% is taken out for taxes (Policy 300.110, “Offender Aid to Victims of Crime,”6/19/18), so his net pay is $14.25. After his gate fee is taken out. he’s left with $7.13 pay for each two week period. From there, more money may be deducted for things like court fees, restitution, or child support. Kneifl said he can be left with less than $4.00 from each paycheck, which makes him feel like it is not worth trying to save money, because there is already barely any money left.

Kneifl also noted that he understands and supports the gate fee but he feels like it should be implemented for someone with a release date within the next 5-10 years, for example. He noted that if someone is serving a life sentence and therefore doesn’t have a release date, he should not be required to have the gate fee as he likely will never be able to utilize it. In summary, Mr. Kneifl can barely live off of what money he has left every pay period and needs to wait until the end of the month until he can make his canteen order, mostly consisting of personal hygiene products.

My second interview was with Gary Jackson. Jackson said that it took him 4 years to pay off his $500 gate fee. He struggled in those first 4 years. During this time he earned $0.25 per hour and worked three hours a day, five days a week. Finally paying off his gate fee took a lot of stress off of him. After the gate fee was paid off, Mr. Jackson said he could start taking advantage of the other three accounts the DOC gave him and began saving money. I asked Mr. Jackson what made him start saving. He responded saying that after his gate fee was paid off, he realized that $500 wasn’t going to be enough for him to survive off when released from prison. He has been saving since 2015. He makes $1.50 an hour, and works six hours a day, five days a week. Jackson said his average income per week is $45, so his monthly income is $180. He has $20 in deductions each month going towards other fees that he owes. Mr. Jackson told me that he automatically has $15 withdrawn from his pay each week, which goes into a savings account that he only uses for canteen [the store where prisoners shop for necessities, like toiletries and shoes, and other items, such as snacks, fans or radios.] The remaining amount of his pay goes into his holding account.

My third interview was with James Dewald, who has been at Stillwater since 1988. Mr. Dewald told me that when he first came to Stillwater, he was indigent and had no outside help from his family. At that time in his life, he didn’t consider having a job. All he thought about was not seeing his family members and loved ones ever again. Mr. Dewald said after weeks of staying to himself, hardly eating, and watching other people happily pick up their canteen orders, he said to himself, “I’m not dead, just locked up.” The following week he applied for a job folding balloons because he wanted to support himself and having money was the key objective. [The Minnesota Department of Corrections contracts with a manufacturer of mylar balloons.]

Dewald said the gate fee bothered him because he needs every penny he makes just to maintain his personal needs. Mr. Dewald further told me that his caseworker informed him that he didn’t have the mandatory gate fee because the gate fee policy excludes anyone serving a life sentence and who is back in prison on a violation of parole or probation. Mr. Dewald got hired in 1989,  but never saved money between 1989 and 2010. He made over $50,000 in 33 years. From 1989 to 1991, his starting pay was $0.50 per hour working 40 hours a week. In a month he made $80,  and in two years his gross pay was $1,920 (which included some overtime pay.) In 2010, the warden told Dewald that he better start saving money towards release as he had a release date set for 2024. From that day forward, Mr. Dewald started saving money.

I have been locked up since 2012, and was sentenced in 2013. From 2013 until this current day, I have  been sending $200 home every month. I landed a job in the educational department. I make $180 every month, because my pay rate is $1.50 per hour, plus I get student pay of $0.50 for attending college. I have been sending money home, because I don’t want to end up violating probation because I don’t have enough money to support myself when I get released. I asked myself if it is difficult to save money while incarcerated: yes, it is, only if you want it to be. The choice is up to those who want to better their lives and themselves. The MN DOC gate fee and other ways for saving money are an inmate’s tool to be successful. Take a chance to invest in your release and don’t let it be too late.