Photo by Emil Kalibradov on Unsplash.

I look at my mail and my monthly statement. I made $100 last month for a writing contest, and I get excited at the thought of being able to order from the canteen. 

Then I look at the next line item — $55 was taken for restitution, leaving $45. Next, 20% of the $45 was taken for the lawsuit I filed and lost about the prison unlawfully taking 55% restitution when the state garnishment laws say they can only take 25%. 

Now I am down to $36. In the next line, I see that another 20% was taken for the lawsuit I filed and lost about the fact that inmates serving life without parole cannot join certain programs, are excluded in most resentencing laws, and have limited housing options until they are 55 years old. That leaves me with $28.80. 

Next line item — another 20% is taken for the lawsuit I filed for being raped while in custody. The courts lost the filing papers but somehow managed to collect the filing fees. Down to $23.04. 

Next line item. The library took $12 for the cost to copy the documents used to file my lawsuits. Next line item — I see that I spent $10 on JPay media bucks to buy stamps to communicate with my family and friends via JPay electronic mail since the phones are rarely an option. That leaves me with the grand sum of $1.04. 

I could technically still afford 50 pieces of the two-cent Tootsie Roll Midgees, but we can’t make a purchase unless we have at least $2. 

I set aside the canteen order form. I guess I won’t be shopping there.

I turned my attention to the vendor catalog. In California, we are permitted to receive quarterly packages ordered from approved vendors. My friends and family had given me a budget of $200 this quarter, and I’m permitted to receive up to 464 ounces of items. Anything I get needs to last me three months. 

I go for the essentials first — two shampoos, three conditioners, three packages of deodorant, three tubes of toothpaste, three toothbrushes, three bottles of body wash, a pack of soap, two lotions and a pack of shaving razors. I make sure to pick the middle grade of products. I don’t want my family and friends to think I am being greedy. Next I get two jars of coffee, which is an essential item for me. I own a mug that says, “With coffee and God, I can. With straight black coffee and God, I can. With strong black coffee and God, I can. Oh, God, I am out of coffee!” 

At this point, I have $75 and about 100 ounces left to spend. I want to get junk food but do not want to seem irresponsible to my family and friends who are giving up this money for me. I want to get clothes and makeup but do not want to appear vain. I want to get chocolate, but will my family and friends think I am wasting their money? 

I focus and decide to order sensible items such as pre-made meals that I can heat in my room, which will allow me to avoid the chow hall a few times. I see meatloaf in the selection and know it won’t taste like the one Mama taught me to make. I end up selecting the Heinz Big Soup cups. They are on sale, easy to make and filling. They are also unhealthy, but everything is. I also pick out spices to perk up the prison-issued meals. 

I finalize my list and email it to my family and friends. I had to type in the quantity, item number and item name for each. 

My family and friends will then call the vendor and hold for several hours before they finally reach a customer service agent who will take the order. I know they will be told  that most of the items are out of stock and will be asked to choose a replacement. My family and friends don’t have a catalog, so they will have to guess. 

By the time the box is ordered, it will look different from what I requested, and it may take weeks to reach the prison and then additional weeks before the prison gives it to me.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Dorothy Maraglino

Dorothy Maraglino is a PJP corresponding writer incarcerated in California. Writing is how she processes the world around her and devotes most of her time to short works that share the realities of prison.