Earning and spending money in prison

New Prison Inspectors report on earning and spending money in prison reveals a number of injustices including the fact that pay has been frozen for 14 years.

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Life in prison

The Prison Inspectorate’s findings papers inevitably make for an interesting read. The most recent one (published in January 2016) is titled: Life in prison: earning and spending money draws on a large number of inspections of individual establishments to examine how the reality of earning and spending money inside compares with the inspectors’ expectations.


How people earn and spend money in prison differs from the outside world. The most obvious difference is the absence of any physical money. Prisoners may have money from what they themselves bring into prison, what is sent in by family or friends or what they earn in prison. They can only spend money up to approved weekly limits depending on their remand or convicted status and their behaviour as assessed under the incentives and earned privileges scheme. Any money that is paid to prisoners for work, or sent in from their family, is stored by the prison and then transferred electronically to the prisoner on a weekly basis depending on their weekly spending limit. Although prison wages are low, prisoners do not have to pay for accommodation, their meals, basic toiletries or clothing if required. Some may be able to bring some approved items into prison with them or have them sent in by families or friends. Prisoners must provide for everything else themselves. They must purchase phone credit themselves and pay rent for a TV. Everything else must be purchased from the prison ‘shop’ or ‘canteen’. In public sector prisons this consists of a list of items, such as tobacco, non-prescribed medication, additional food and toiletries, hobby materials and stationery, chosen to meet the particular needs of individual prison populations from a national product list (NPL) of approved items. Prisoners may also purchase other items such as clothing or religious artefacts from approved retail catalogues for which prisons charge an administration fee. Private sector prisons have their own canteen arrangements. The money that a convicted prisoner can spend is also restricted based on their behaviour and level on the incentives and earned privileges (IEP) scheme which has four levels: entry; basic; standard and enhanced. The maximum a convicted prisoner is able to spend per week is £25.50 although most prisoners are limited to £15.50 (the limits are higher for remand prisoners) — these amounts have not changed since 2008. porridge


The rate of prison pay has not been increased since 2002(!) and is set out in Prison Service Order 4460 which requires:
  • that all prisoners who are in some form of employment have to earn the minimum of £4 a week, although they can earn more; in 2010 the average working prisoner earned £10 a week
  • a mandatory rate of pay of £3.25 a week for those who are unable to work for health reasons or have reached retirement age
  • that those who wish to work, but are unable to due to a lack of activity places in the prison, are paid a minimum of £2.50 a week
  • that unconvicted prisoners who choose to work are paid the same as convicted prisoners.

The cost of calling home

Prisoners buy telephone credit, which they can purchase in £1 increments through the canteen. Despite official recognition that maintaining contact is important, the cost of making a telephone call from prison can be expensive. Calls to mobiles — the only option for many prisoners — at a prison recently inspected were advertised as costing 20.4p per minute on weekdays and 13.2p per minute at weekends. Therefore, a 30-minute call costs £6.12 during the week and £3.96 at the weekend. So a prisoner on maximum earnings could not afford to call his/her family twice per week for an hour in total.


Prisoners rely on ordering goods from the prison canteen for all but the barest necessities of life. Inspectors found that many new prisoners have very limited access during their first days and weeks in prison:
Fewer than a quarter (23%) of prisoners surveyed said that they had access to canteen when they first arrived in prison. In local prisons, where most prisoners begin their sentences, the proportion fell to 21%. For many individuals, this is their first experience of prison life and they may not be sufficiently aware of the need to avoid borrowing and the associated debt. It can often take up to two weeks for a prisoner to receive their first canteen order.
[For more details on prisoners’ first experiences of prison life, see another recent Findings report: The first 24 hours in prison.] Inspectors also found that fewer than half the prisoners they surveyed (47%) felt that their canteen had a wide enough range of goods to meet their needs. There was a lack of healthy foods and both Black and Muslim prisoners felt that their choice was even more limited with many basic culturally appropriate toiletries and foodstuffs unavailable. Additionally, on the whole canteen items were dearer than they would be in mainstream supermarket. The inspectors’ table below does not include any supermarket special offers or promotions: canteen prices


The inspectors acknowledge that prisoner pay is always likely to be a controversial issue but still make five strong recommendations:
  1. There should be a review of prisoner pay and money in possession rates, which have not changed since 1992 and 2008 respectively.
  2. Allowances for older prisoners and others who are unable to work should be reviewed and should provide sufficient income to cover new TV rent charges and other reasonable basic items.
  3. Pay should be linked to performance and effort in work, education or training and not disincentivise education or offender behaviour work.
  4. Prisoners should not be charged an administration fee for catalogue orders.
  5. National and international charges for telephone calls from prisons should be reviewed to achieve equivalence with similar charges in the community.

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7 Responses

  1. Russell,
    Good piece and informative as always. You may wish to know that there is a limit put in place on a time limit on how long the telephone call can last. In most prisons it is 5 min maximum then one has to wait 10 mins to bee connected. The maximum an offender can down in one day is also constrained.

    The one bit of relief is for those foreign national prisoners as the prison recognises that calls abroad are expensive who can access funds from their private account for telephone calls and this will not affect their canteen account.

    My question would be to see if the prison service made money of the telephone system

  2. Hi TC
    Thanks very much for the comment. I know some of the new build prisons have in cell phones which makes the business of keeping in touch with family and friends much more human.

  3. I’m so concerned my partner is in jail ..I’ve bin sending 60 poi d a month he’s hardly ringing the phone I even had a landline fitted ..I suspected hi, of cheeting …how cam I fonf out of he’s ti hi g her he’s telling me its only 1560 a week but vie bin told u vs spend ptivsyr spends on his phone is that the truth..plus has g wing gut double orvdingle cells

  4. No sympathy for the prisoner with their £2.50 a week. All the sympathy in the world to the families…. I spend over half my life showing compassion and sympathy to prisoners and their familoes, do them or their family have sympathy or compassion to my family that I dont see? No? Thought so

  5. I’m pleased to hear prisoners can hire a tv and buy snacks. Can families and friends send in gifts for Christmas and birthdays, or can they order gifts from approved sites/prison canteen?

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