How much does the voice of an incarcerated person cost?

Christina John
6 min readSep 14, 2020
Photo by Ashley Ross on Unsplash

To continue this blog’s focus on free expression, I want to draw attention to how the carceral state stifles any and all expression from incarcerated people. I saw this clearly during my time volunteering at a prison writing and justice program. We received many submissions by people who craved to share their story, sharpen their ability, and shine a light on their being, their creativity, and voice — all aspects of their personhood that had been systematically denied, devalued, and dehumanized.

It was during this time that I had listened to a report by Reveal about the Swintec clear typewriters, specifically designed for prisons in order to make it impossible to hide contraband or weapons. These typewriters can go for a whopping $350, not including the cost of replacing a broken machine or buying the necessary ink ribbon cassettes, which only last a dozen or so pages. Daniel Gross did the math in his 2017 report, hypothetically finding that if an incarcerated person made about a quarter an hour, they “would need to spend a thousand hours working before they could buy a Swintec, which could take years.” When Gross was reporting, a basic model cost $225, but the five products on this page (current as of 9/14/2020) range from $335.50 to $369.50.

This 2017 Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) report by Wendy Sawyer found that the wages per hour ranged from $0.14 to $0.63 for non-industry jobs and $0.33 to $1.41 for “correctional industries” jobs. When considering the other exploitative costs incarcerated people have due to phone calls and electronic messaging to stay connected with loved ones, or the prices of basic necessities from the commissary to supplement what the prison is not providing, it seems that incarcerated people are living out some cruel economics experiment that academics ruminate on Theoretically* in classrooms.

The visuals from PPI can communicate these costs more effectively than text:

When the incarcerated person has limited resources, how will they spend their money? Will they demand that their voice be valued? Will they maintain ties with their community? Will they focus on survival on the inside? Assuming an incarcerated person is not receiving funds from loved ones on the outside, it seems as though they will have to sacrifice (1) their humanity in the outside world via their voice and free expression, (2) the maintenance of their humanity through relationships with loved ones on the outside, (3) the ability to survive as a human inside and make it back to the outside. I do not have answers and do not wish to capital-T Theorize — as some might say in conversations about critical pedagogy, this is the “theorizing” done from a distance and without a clue as to how removed the resulting Theory is from those who are impacted. I want to bring attention to why these questions seem to pop up in the twenty-first century, over 150 years since the supposed end of slavery. I say “supposed” because we have numerous sources to tell us the legacy of slavery has survived to this day, within the inside and outside world, but also because the Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment sanctions this.

Amendment XIII

Section 1.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

There is no democracy when there are caveats. Instead, we live in a democracy* that devalues the voices of many in favor of the voices of the few. Monopolistic companies steal the few dollars earned as compensation for modern-day slave labor. The Thirteenth Amendment allows slavery and involuntary servitude to exist within the carceral state. Particularly timely on September 14, 2020, is the use of slave labor to fight the wildfires on the West Coast. The wildfires have highlighted how dependent California has become on slave labor to fight fires. Neil deMause of FAIR writes: “In California, inmates at state prisons are allowed to apply to work at “conservation camps” for a base rate of $5.12 per day, plus an additional $1 an hour when out fighting fires.”

PPI has done extensive work around ending prison-based-gerrymandering; by the 2020 redistricting cycle, nine states passed legislation to count incarcerated people at home for redistricting purposes. There are varying degrees of progress for legislation to end prison-based gerrymandering in other states and numerous cities across the country, but outside of efforts at the state and local level, the Census Bureau decided in 2018 that it would continue the practice for the 2020 census. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have slowed progress in other states. Between already-existing crises extending from the legacy of slavery and a new crisis in the form of a pandemic, the voices of the incarcerated are further lost in false redistricting. Incarcerated people are cut off from their communities in multiple ways, and this is yet another way to weaken the communities most invested in fighting for the freedoms of their incarcerated loved ones. Instead, prison hosting communities, some of whom may operate under the false notion that prison populations bring in federal and state funding, use prisoners as cardboard cut-outs behind otherwise smaller communities, amplifying select voices by stealing from other communities. There is a lot of anxiety around the upcoming election, and there should be; the system continues to be rigged.

How can people maintain their humanity as resources become more and more limited? One letter in particular that I opened while volunteering at the program sticks out to me. The writer saved some forms from the place they were caged. While the front of the forms had lines that had to be filled out and boxes to be checked in response to certain questions, the back provided a blank canvas for the writer to send in handwritten prose they were working on. What a precious resource paper must have been to the beginning writer and yet they decided to send it to us. They decided to share their voice with us, express some of their creativity. What a reminder of how critical the freedom of expression and the ability to have our voice heard are to our humanity. We are here for more than just survival. We are here to be seen and heard. We are here to matter, no matter how much we are ignored. We are here to live as humans. Every last one of us.



Christina John