This article was published in collaboration with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.
My federal prison sentence ended three months ago, and for someone who’s been free only that long, it would appear that I have accomplished quite a lot. During my last year of confinement, I moved into a halfway house and enrolled at Portland State University; I received high academic honors, and an upcoming study-abroad scholarship to South America; I got a job as an interpreter for a medical contractor, using the Spanish I learned in prison.
Does that mean prison “worked” for me? Or have I managed to thrive just because I was among the 1 percent of prisoners in the first place?
Six months before my arrest on a drug charge, my mom died of a prescription-drug overdose. I received $96,000 in life insurance. I might have squandered it on drugs—anything to numb the grief—but she had arranged for it to be doled out to me in monthly stipends.
I still had checks coming in when I was arrested. I signed power of attorney over to my godmother, who would then deposit money into my prison account whenever I asked for it.
That meant that over the three and a half years that I was incarcerated, I was able to spend more than $20,000 on food and toiletries at commissary as well as the social and economic lifeline of phone calls and emails. That’s how much it costs to keep a connection to the real world—and therefore to potential future success—from prison.
Here’s a breakdown:
300 phone minutes, the monthly limit, at 21 cents a minute for domestic long-distance calls = $63/month
2,700 monthly minutes of emailing = $135/month
Five monthly video visits = $30
Maximum monthly limit at commissary = $360/month
That adds up to $588 per month. And in prison, we make cents on the hour at best, if we can even get a job.
For anyone without outside help, those costs are way out of reach.
But I knew that to maintain my support network and reduce my risk of returning to prison someday, I had to pay the price. I was already considered a “low-risk” offender, given my crime, and I was able to further reduce my “risk” by maintaining this line to the world. I used the 5-cents-per-minute Corrlinks email system as a platform for advocacy for myself. I wrote an article that was published by The Marshall Project, which required several $1.50 sessions for editing, that altered the course of my life, because it got my name out there and gave me credibility.
Money was buying my rehabilitation.
Do not think I didn’t suffer in prison just because I had commissary and communication. The degradations and depravations were constant. But it is true that I suffered less. I never had to develop a “hustle” to afford basic hygiene supplies. I never went more than a few days without talking to someone I knew or loved or who could help me. I was able to preserve my social relationships despite the time and distance.
Having no money in prison destroys your social ties and perpetuates criminality. This is the fate to which we condemn most of our prisoners.
The people who need to maintain their social connections the most, who are most vulnerable because of the toll that poverty takes, are the least able to do so. I felt guilty for all my contact with people back home and my locker full of commissary products. While I could call a friend to Google the circumference of the Earth just because I was curious, other women couldn’t even call their kids.
My friend Marie* was my “iron girl.” For $10 a month, she ironed my khaki uniform five days a week. That was her “hustle.” The day before commissary, she would show up at my cell door with a list. On a scrap of paper were $10 worth of commissary items: two bags of tortilla chips, a toothbrush and a box of laundry soap. For a month’s work.
She also worked as an orderly, cleaning the showers for $26 a month. She saved every bit of these scant wages to purchase phone and email minutes. A 15-minute international call to Mexico cost her $8.25. Her prison job cleaning filthy bodily-fluid-ridden showers earned her 47 minutes of phone time per month.
Meanwhile, as Marie was working, I was studying Spanish, reading self-improvement books and working out. When your basic necessities are not met, you focus on survival. But I was able to focus on personal growth and my mental health.
I got out before Marie. She asked me to call and check on her kids. She had such a hard time getting a hold of anyone. She and her husband, Mexican citizens, had both been sentenced to federal prison. The children, U.S. citizens, had been placed in foster care.
I called the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, and spoke to a woman named Betsy. “I’m calling on behalf of my friend Marie. She wants to know about her children. Her attorney never answers her calls or writes her back.”
Betsy answered me curtly, “As we have already informed Mrs. Ramos, her parental rights have been terminated. There will be no further contact.”
Apparently keeping your kids is also something that money can buy.
Prison is dark and desolate; for most of us, the motivation to keep living comes from the outside world. But for a large percentage of inmates, there’s just no way to get that sense of connection.
“Morgan, can you have someone check if my brother is in jail?” said another friend, one day, knowing I had the money to do so.
“Sure. I’ll send an email. Come check back tomorrow.”
I sent the request to one of my friends who would then do the research and email me with the answer. That is the prison version of internet access.
I tried to help in these kinds of ways, but most of my hours spent on the computer were spent on myself.
I was released from prison and transferred to a Portland halfway house on Jan. 9, 2018. I had $12,000 left in my savings from the life insurance. I attended my first class at Portland State three days later. I could afford to pay cash for a class. I could afford to buy a new wardrobe at the outlet malls instead of having to pick through a donation closet.
And thanks to our frequent but expensive communication, my loved ones had gotten to know me as I’d evolved and become a different person over the years of my incarceration. Our relationship dynamics had matured, even while I was locked up.
For others, incarceration freezes relationships in time. People become strangers. Society changes without you.
I continued attending Portland State and was approved for VA education benefits, which meant I didn't have to pay for school. Meanwhile my peers were working long hours at less than ideal jobs.
One friend poured concrete and returned to the halfway house each night exhausted, full of aches and pains. Another worked full-time as a telemarketer. Several of my fellow residents worked at a recycling sorting plant.
Crucially, I have hope, which people returning from prison need more than anything else. We need some sense that we can finally control our own destiny.
Six months into my time at the halfway house, I had completed two terms at school with a 4.0 GPA. I applied for and received my passport. I won a study-abroad scholarship from the U.S. State Department, thanks to accomplishments made possible by my savings account. I am now preparing to leave the country to study public health in Argentina over the summer.
Thanks to my “re-entry success,” a federal judge granted me permission to spend two months out of the country. I will have gone from prisoner to international student in 16 months. And I will use the Spanish I learned in prison—from people like Marie.
People are quick to laud my successes, but I am quicker to point out how what I’ve done is simply not replicable for most people whom this country releases from prison. I had the financial resources to further my education, which meant I didn't have to deal with the most common incentive for recidivism. Money bought my life back.
So I am not evidence that the system “works.” I am an outlier, dripping in luck. There is nothing inherent in our criminal justice system that fosters rehabilitation or redemption. Just ask yourself: Why is successful reentry after prison exceptional instead of standard?
*Marie's name was changed to protect the person's privacy.
Morgan Godvin, 29, lives in Portland, Oregon, and is earning a Bachelor’s degree at the OHSU-Portland State University School of Public Health, with a double-major in Spanish. She intends to attend law school upon graduation and also performs criminal justice advocacy work.