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The Cost to the Family of Having a Loved One Incarcerated

Patricia is someone whose life is centered around family. Each day is one more opportunity to show my loved ones how much they mean to me.

Locked Away from Family


Let's get this elephant in the room over with from the onset of this article. While you may be thinking, 'well, if so and so had not committed a crime, he or she would not be behind bars." To which my reply is: You, as the reader, know that many who are incarcerated should not be.

There are, of course, those who should be in prison. We all can agree on these points.

Further, it is my contention and the contention of many that those who are incarcerated are there because they did not have the thousands and thousands of dollars to make their crime disappear.

It is a money-thing, period. If one has access to powerful attorneys, all of or most of the charges can be reduced to minimal charges or no charges. That is why the loved ones of many remain incarcerated.

Serving Time

Unless you have a loved one in prison, you may be unaware of the on-going financial cost to the family that occurs. This article addresses those on-going expenses and is only referencing the experience in one state and not nationally as these expenses can vary by state.

Personally, I had never thought that a family would, out of necessity, be spending large (depending on an individual family's financial resource) sums of money on a monthly basis to provide for needs of their loved on and for items that will help make imprisonment more bearable.

Waiting for Charges

Perhaps, the least obvious cost is the emotional strain.

That cost begins long before the sentence is handed down. You, as the family or friend of the loved one, essentially serve time with that person!!!

The cost begins when the charges for the offense occurs. That is Day 1.

Like a snowball that is rolling at top speed down a mountain, it gathers unspecified momentum, picks up extraneous debris along the way, and finally crashes into something, scattering bits of itself hither, thither, and yon. And those who are involved in this journey, live this relentless froth of uncertainty each day with the loved one.

Waiting for sentencing is often of indeterminant length. Which in and of itself makes this damnable trek through time that much more horrendous. The not knowing, the uncertainty of it all, takes a toll that is almost beyond belief

Many families go through months or years of living under this cloud, wondering when the next shoe will drop. Wanting, longing for it to end, but praying that it won't, if that makes sense.

I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions--poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed--which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.

— Howard Zinn

Financial Cost to the Family or Friends of a Loved One in Prison

In this particular case, there are multiple costs to those who are on the outside making a sincere effort to support an individual that is loved and being held within prison walls.

One which is the most obvious but probably the least considered has been spoken of above. And that is the emotional turmoil and strain that having someone who is loved and was in daily contact with you no longer at hand. It is a daily struggle to not dwell on that fact. Thankfully it is possible, but not comfortable, to put the thoughts of longing to be with the loved one deep within the recesses of our minds so that we can move forward.

Costs to the Incarcerated Person, Too

According to the Bureau of Prisons, it was revealed that the average cost for a prisoner was $36,299.25 per year , and per day $99.45. On July 9, there were 159,692 federal inmates in Prisons. It makes in total nearly $5.8 billion per year. But the recent annual costs total is $182 billion to keep the prisoner. This is federal prisons.

As I researched this part of this article, I found a wide range of cost per inmate by state, quite a wide range.

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I also found that in some states from day one of incarceration, prisoners may be charged 50 dollars per day for their stay in prison.

How does that make sense? This is slightly off topic but how can a prisoner ever survive if she or he finds a bill of approximately 16.000 dollars per year owed at the time of release? It appears to me that the person is being set up to fail.

Finding a job will be very difficult, not to mention finding housing, and basic needs. Add a huge debt on top of other concerns and anyone would feel defeated at the onset.

The state budgets vary for incarcerated individuals but usually is in the billions. And those dollars come from you and me. Our tax dollars hard at work.

This is a cost to the family, too, because not only is the family trying to live with the family member or friend inside prison walls but concern for that person's welfare after incarceration is ever present.

Had research not been done for this article, I would have never known that a bill awaits those who are released. I did not know and truthfully I did not care until prison happened to someone I love.

I know what it is like to be ignored, and I think that is the big problem about the prison system: These people are being thrown away. There is no sense of rehabilitation. In some places, they are trying to do things. But, in most cases, it's a holding cell.

— Lee Tergesen

Why is it Necessary to Send Money?

The financial cost of families will vary depending on how much the family or friends choose to send the person that is imprisoned that they love.

There is a system through which family and friends can send money for : phone calls, video chats, email, and for necessities. All of this contact is done electronically.

The loved one never gets to hold a card or item sent from home. This change occurred because of contraband being sent into to the prison systems.

The amount that is sent is strictly up to whomever is sending monies.

Video Chat

The video chat, email, phone calls, video grams, and canteen are not the only charges for which an inmate has need. There is also a charge per visit to see medical.

The video chat is set up through an outside agency. It allows those of us with family and friends to see and hear the voice of our loved one. It usually is a very happy time. However when internet is out in the area where the loved one's prison is located, no visitation on video chat and frequently via email occurs.


It is again possible to send a message to a friend or loved one just as if you were emailing someone on the outside. It is also possible to send a photo or attach an image available through the provider of the service.

Again, like video chat there is a charge for this service.

Phone Calls

Phone calls can be made by a person who is incarcerated. That individual must initiate the call. We, on the outside, cannot call in.

The phone calls are one more way to feel close to our loved ones.

As it to be expected there is a charge for this service which the loved one's family will fund.

Video Gram

A video gram is a 30 second video that those of us on the outside can record and send to our loved one. It is a fun way to send live pictures of pets or family. It helps to maintain the contact we feel with each other.

Our loved one tells us that it is a very enjoyable 'gift' to receive.


Canteen is a time that our loved ones look forward to each week. The frequency of canteen varies.

In canteen such items as soap, toothpaste, and other toiletries can be purchased using money we have put on the loved one's account. Other items are also available and most of them are not inexpensive.

One thing our loved one usually purchases is ramen noodles as it is possible to be creative and come up with some tasty dishes using the noodles.

Once in a great while, cookies or some type of candy will be purchased as well.

Quarterly, it is possible to purchase t-shirts or socks or other such items. Again they are not inexpensive.


It is possible to send books to our loved one. They must be sent directly to the inmate through a provider such as Amazon. It is not possible to mail such items directly to our loved one.

It was possible at one time but apparently contraband was able to be mailed in and even though the items were searched by CO's, some still made its way in to the prison.

In-Person Visitation

The best way to visit our loved one is in-person, obviously. We are allowed a weekend visit if it is approved. We can visit on Saturday and Sunday.

Presently visitations each week are permitted but that policy is currently up for review and it appears that every other weekend visits will become the standard.

In our case, we live five hours from our loved one, so our visits are not very frequent. It is quite costly as we must spend the night. But every dime that it costs is well spent.

The big hug we get at the beginning and end of each visiting day is awesome. Chatting and visiting and even playing cards is the best.

During the visit, we are allowed to take in fifty dollars each day which we can use to feed our loved one. It is possible to purchase edibles from canteen on visitation days. The sandwich can be heated in a microwave which is not possible if a sandwich is purchased from canteen for prisoners. Funny, what we take for granted.

A special moment is when we get to have a photo taken with our loved one. I usually get two. The one with both of us in it, my loved one keeps for his collection. His idea.

Sometime during the visit, count will occur. Count is when all inmates are taken from the room to be counted to insure everyone is present.

Usually after count, the doors leading to an outside pavilion and grassy area are opened. We can go out and walk around in the fresh air and chat. There are also places to sit that are available. Of course a CO is outside with us at all times.

Of course while we are there we may need to use the restroom. A CO will unlock the restroom and we are ushered in. Upon exiting, the CO steps in a frisks us to make sure we have nothing we should not have.

The time of the two day visit, 9 to 2, passes too quickly. That is why we are so glad to have other alternative ways to visit with our loved one.

I must add that I have two precious family members who live in another state that have helped me financially to provide for my loved one during this horrible time. I am so very grateful as I would not be able to contact this person as often as I can because of them. They are my Angels.


For each question, choose the best answer for you.

  1. Are you aware of how many people are incarcerated in your state?
    • That really does not concern me, so 'no'
    • Never really thought about one I know is incarcerated
  2. After reading this article, will you research additional financial costs to families of incarcerated individuals?
    • No. I do not care.
    • Yes and I will see if I can do anything to help make changes in my state.
  3. Are you directly impacted by having a loved one in prison?
    • Yes. A close family member has been sent to prison.
    • No and I do not know anyone in prison.


Use the scoring guide below to add up your total points based on your answers.

  1. Are you aware of how many people are incarcerated in your state?
    • That really does not concern me, so 'no': +5 points
    • Never really thought about one I know is incarcerated: +5 points
  2. After reading this article, will you research additional financial costs to families of incarcerated individuals?
    • No. I do not care.: -5 points
    • Yes and I will see if I can do anything to help make changes in my state.: +5 points
  3. Are you directly impacted by having a loved one in prison?
    • Yes. A close family member has been sent to prison.: +5 points
    • No and I do not know anyone in prison.: +0 points

Interpreting Your Score

A score between 0 and 4 means: ?

A score between 5 and 9 means: ?

A score between 10 and 12 means: ?

A score of 13 means: ?

A score between 14 and 15 means: ?

How Important is Contact with an Inmate?

There is really no way to emphasize how important maintaining contact with someone who is loved and is in prison.

It is mutually beneficial to those on the outside of prison walls as well as the incarcerated individual. Knowing that your loved ones care about your welfare while you are far from home in a setting that is not ideal can be lifechanging for that person.

Being able to call or text or video chat keeps the relationship alive and thriving. the in-person visits are like a breath of fresh air for the family member or friend who visits and for the loved one who is within the confines of prison walls.

Guilty or Not?

It is often said that 'no one' in prison is guilty. Those within the confines of prison walls as well as the loved ones at home will often maintain that their loved one is wrongfully imprisoned.

After having endured this whole nightmare, I am inclined to believe that there is much more truth to that than one would like to believe.

In light of all of the violence that has occurred within the last two years and watching most of those who perpetrated those crimes walk free has turned my whole belief system upside down.

Again, I have digressed.

Just know that the cost of a loved one being in prison goes far beyond the monetary cost. The strain of not knowing that your loved one is safe is ever present. Somehow you begin to try to live each day (as we should) rather than concerning ourselves with 'what ifs' has become our way to live with this whole sad situation. Another way is to have a strong and very powerful support system which helps living with the torment more bearable.

Thankfully there are ways cited within this which article help to maintain contact with our loved ones.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Patricia Scott

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