Green Dot

green-dot
Reloadable Green Dot VISA online shopping cards and Money Pak cards are for sale at many convenience stores.  (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

It sucks to be poor.  Some who are in prison were accustomed to having the finer things of life when they were out in the world.  Some had enough to get by and get a few luxury items too.  Some lived hand to mouth, scrambling to keep cash flowing in the absence of a steady paycheck.  And some had nothing living on the streets, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating at soup kitchens.  This is also a good description of what life in prison is like.  In prison there are the “haves” and “have nots.”  Everyone comes to prison with nothing but the clothes on their back and then those are taken away, but after that…

Prison starts with quarantine at the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center (RGC) which according to the MDOC website, “serves as the facility responsible for intake processing of all male offenders who are adjudicated adults sentenced to a term of incarceration with the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Prisoners with new commitments, parole violators, and youthful offenders are received at RGC for assessments, screening, and classification prior to their placement in general population prisons throughout the agency.”

“Prisoners receive a variety of psychological, medical, educational and security classification evaluations upon arrival at RGC.  Prisoners are all medically screened by professionally trained correctional health care staff during the intake process.  Prisoners are subjected to twelve days of intake processing prior to being classified for transfer to a general population facility capable of meeting their medical, program and security needs.  The average length of stay at RGC is 30 to 45 days.  Prisoners with significant medical needs or prisoners involved in parole revocation hearings are held at the facility until their medical or due process concerns are resolved.”

While at RGC there is a limited commissary available for those who have money in their trust account.  I was fortunate enough to bring a check with funds left over from my county jail stay, so I had funds available to order basic hygiene items, shower shoes and postage stamps.  For those that don’t come to prison with financial resources they must reach out to family and friends via collect phone calls to try to secure funds.  For first time offenders or those who are PV-new bit there are no job opportunities available in quarantine, so no source of earned income.  Most will have to wait until they are transferred to another facility to get funds to acquire the basics, let alone creature comforts.

Money cannot be sent directly to prisoners since they are not allowed to have access to currency while in prison.  While I was incarcerated the MDOC changed the procedure by which those in the public could put funds into a prisoner’s trust account.  Instead of sending the money to an MDOC address, the funds must be sent to a third-party company called JPay which managed the process by accepting credit cards through their website or by money orders to their PO Box.  JPay works with most state corrections departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to offer a variety of services some of which have been adopted by the MDOC.

Not everyone who wants to send money has a credit card.  For those who need a credit card because a traditional debit card won’t work there are companies like Green Dot.  Green Dot offers a prepaid pinless debt card that functions like a credit card that is widely used especially in urban communities.  The practice is so common among prisoner’s family and friends that Green Dot is not just a noun, but it is also used as a verb referring to the process of transferring money.

Green Dot is used to go beyond transferring money into an inmate’s trust account but is also used as a way of transferring money on behalf of one inmate to a party designated by another inmate.  Usually this is done to get around having funds garnished to pay restitution, fines, and outstanding court costs when sent to an inmate with outstanding court debts.  An inmate will find someone who doesn’t have their funds garnished and have money placed in their account to so that they can use that inmate as a straw purchaser for their commissary.  Green Dot is also commonly used to pay off gambling debts, drug & alcohol purchases, and store-man tabs.  Additionally, it might be used to pay for jailhouse law services, tattoos, and protection/extortion.

This obviously only works for those who have connections to financial resources on the outside.  Many in prison simply don’t have connections to family or friends that can or are willing to send money.  For instance, drug users may have already burned their bridges to family and friends by previously stealing from them to support their habit.  Something I heard of happening was that some guys, even some who were married would develop relationships with several women who they would get to send money to support them in prison.  They would call and send JPay emails regularly to all of their women requesting money and then dump them when they didn’t get it.  They would even schedule visits so they could get that fine vending machine cuisine.  One time a guy was having a visit with his girlfriend when his wife showed up unannounced.  From what I heard it was quite the scene in the visiting room.  The COs had to separate the women when blows were exchanged.  A risky business, but one that continues to be played out in prisons all over.

I read recently that a graduate student published his finding that Raman Noodles are now the primary currency in prison.  I got a good laugh about that.  It wasn’t a state secret and anyone who has been in prison in the last decade could have told him that.  But that covers the small stuff, and there are only so many bags of coffee that you can stick in your locker for the bigger stuff.  The more items like that you have the greater a theft target you become.  Stacking up cash either in your trust account or somewhere else out in the world is far safer.

Green Dot or its financial equivalent is what many of the “haves” use to maintain their lifestyle while in prison.  By purchasing these cards with cash at grocery stores they can be difficult to trace but as good as cash to settle debts.  Easy to acquire and use, it serves a purpose that its creator never envisioned.  It is true that “money makes the world go ‘round,” and since the world doesn’t stop even though it feels like it for those in prisons, access to money is crucial.  Like the old VISA commercial said, “It’s everywhere you want to be.”  In this case however it might be more accurate to say, “It’s useful even in places you don’t want to be.”

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