The High Cost of Survival in Mexican Prisons


In Mexican prisons there are fees for everything: the right to sleep in a bed, receive some water for drinking or bathing, avoid beatings and assaults… Mexican prisoners pay to survive.

In Mexico, prisoners pay to survive in jails

Being imprisoned in Mexico is expensive. Defendants have to pay to survive. Civil organizations and academic studies have shown that a prisoner will pay an average of 5,000 pesos per month (about $300 USD) to live in relative calm in a Mexican prison. In other cases the fees are higher, depending on where you are or the services you need.

State Prisons

The country’s 277 state prisons are especially problematic. Informal fees exist in virtually all of of the state prisons according to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). There are 254,705 prisoners in Mexico, mostly in state dependent prisons.

No one knows exactly how much the prisoners pay but a study by the organization, Documenta has documented one dimension of the problem.

According to Documenta, in just 4 prisons in Mexico City, inmates pay a total sum of 336,000 pesos per day (about $20,000 USD).

Everything has a price

Charges for prisoners begin from the moment they walk into jail. There is a fee to be given a change of beige clothes, the regulation color for prisoners. The fee is about 20 pesos (US $1.20). Then you need to pay for a cement slab to sleep on and again for a blanket: on average about 100 pesos (US $6.00) but that fee varies by prison facility.

Other fees come after that: fees to go to the bathroom, to comply with the attendance list, to exit the cell or corridor where you are located, to pass through a door or receive a notification from the courthouse. In these cases, payments range between 5 and 10 pesos (US $0.30 to $0.60) each time.


The fees increase for other necessities: 2 pesos (US $0.12) for a liter of water, 15 pesos (US $0.90) per week for prison food, 20 pesos (US $1.20) to rent a plastic table for family visits and between 100 to 200 pesos (US $6 to $15) per week to sleep lying down.

To avoid attacks inside jail, inmates can hire bodyguards. The rate is between 2,500 and 5,000 pesos (US $150 to $300).

A similar fee is charged in order to not be moved to areas with high prisoner populations or rooms considered dangerous. Payments continue for as long as the inmate remains in jail.

The fees are delivered to inmates, guards and employees of the courts but they don’t receive all the money, Saskia Niño de Rivera, president of Reinserta (organization working to improve the prison situation in Mexico) told BBC Mundo:

“The costs are very expensive, the guards don’t keep it all and neither do the prison directors. It goes much higher,” she says.

“It’s not true”, the Mexico City Secretary of Government, Patricia Mercado told newspaper Reforma, since corruption money in the prisons of the capital city stays between the custodians. “It doesn’t necessarily rise to the top,” she said.

The losers

In most cases, the cost of living in a prison is paid by the families of inmates.

It’s a high price to pay, says the study Invisible women: the true costs of prison, by researcher Catalina Pérez Correa.

“For many people it has meant losing their home and/or car, having to start work or get a second job, stop studying, stop frequenting friends, just to care for their children,” she says.

70% of Mexican state prisons are governed by the prisoners

70% of Mexican state prisons are governed by the prisoners

Relatives don’t just give money to care for their incarcerated family members, they also pay every time they visit.

Other fees that are almost always given to the guards: 20 pesos (US $1.20) to get a calling card, 80 pesos (US $4.80) for unauthorized food or 120 pesos (US $7.20) for shoes other than the regulation footwear.

An electronic device such as TV or stereo costs between 800 and 1,000 pesos (US $48 to US $60) as initial fees. A mobile phone for prisoners costs between 1,500 and 2,000 pesos, depending on the prison (ie, from US $90 to US $121).

Once inside jail, the family also has to pay some of the fees of the defendants.

To have another inmate advise when you have a visitor costs 10 pesos (US $0.60) and then between 2 and 5 pesos (US $0.12 and US $0.30) every time they pass through a door. These fees are multiplied per visitor. In Mexico City alone, for example, an average of 3.2 million visits are made to inmates annually.

But money is only part of the problem. In the vulnerable contexts that most inmates endure in Mexico, the price of living in prison creates a vicious circle that doesn’t help rehabilitation, according to the study by researcher Pérez Correa.

It’s a cost that doesn’t stay behind the bars.

“The likelihood that problems of substance abuse, crime and violence in families is increasing,” adds the document.


In the background, the lack of control of state prisons is behind the problem.

According to the National Assessment Prison Supervision 2014, by the CNDH, in 70% of the most overcrowded prisons exist under “self-government.” That is, that the real control is exercised by prisoners.

Saskia Niño de Rivera saw first hand. In a prison in Zacatecas “a Zeta with an AK47 rifle opened the door for me.”

The president of the organization, Reinserta insists that part of the problem is prison overcrowding and low wages of the guards. But above all is the failure of the authorities. “There is no interest in creating a prison system that works,” she says.

“Don’t conclude that prison is the final link in the security system of the country.”

Animal Politico/BBC Mundo
Las mujeres invisibles: los verdaderos costos de la prisión (PDF)
Diagnóstico Nacional de Supervisión Penitenciaria 2014 (PDF)

About Author

Erin Gallagher is a multimedia artist, translator and writer for Revolution News.