Prosecutors, prison officials, and the journalists who cover them have a habit of suggesting that incarcerated people commonly live lavishly off of enormous trust account balances, the source of which could be ongoing criminal conduct. These misleading, fear-mongering narratives, which shed more heat than light, are common. The Washington Post, to name one repeat actor, has published a number of stories on this topic, including one focused on how people incarcerated in the federal system “are keeping large sums of money” in government-run accounts that are shielded from “criminal scrutiny and debt collection.” And yet another claiming that “more than 20 federal inmates have balances of more than $100,000 each,” adding up to more than $3 million.

These stories make it sound like nefarious, unregulated trust-account activity is a huge problem. If there is a problem, the federal Bureau of Prisons already has all the tools it needs to investigate suspicious transactions and take corrective action. But more importantly, the actual numbers provided in the articles tend to tell another story. One of the Post articles, for instance, notes that there are roughly 129,000 people incarcerated in BOP facilities, and the total balance of all trust accounts is somewhere around $100 million. If you subtract the $3 million in the 20 high-balance accounts, you arrive at an average account balance of $752 — that is, $97 million divided by 128,980 people. That’s a far more modest number than the six-figure sum the alarmist headline blares.

Behind these sensationalized accounts hides the true misconduct: A pervasive system of wealth extraction that preys on economically disadvantaged communities — particularly communities of color — for no other reason than to fund the continued operation of carceral systems and to generate corporate profit.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in how prisons function as part of a macroeconomy based on extraction of wealth and resources from those who are already having a hard time making ends meet. The same dynamic occurs on a microeconomic level within carceral facilities: Large sums of money, in the aggregate, are extracted from incarcerated people and their families to cover basic necessities (like communications services, food, medical care, and hygiene products) and other expenses related to their custody (like room and board). The money that people pay for these goods and services sometimes lands in the coffers of private firms, but public agencies also take a healthy share of the pie, in the form of contractually negotiated fees or “site commissions,” another term for kickbacks from the private firms that sell goods or services in correctional facilities.

Read the full article about the cycle of exploitation by Ariel Nelson and Stephen Raher at Prison Policy Initiative.