Show up as an offender at a prison run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) or many other states' prison systems, and you'll likely be assigned an account number and an ITF Office address through which loved ones can deposit money on your behalf into an inmate trust fund.

When you hear the term "trust fund," you may reasonabl imagine the commonly used estate planning tool that can help minimize taxes or a spoiled rich kid who's a trust fund baby. The inmate trust fund (ITF) is obviously in another -- a rather important account belonging to an offender in prison.

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What an inmate trust fund is

An inmate trust fund is essentially the bank account of an offender while they're incarcerated. If they have a job in prison, their wages are typically deposited into that account, and if they need spending money -- say, for snacks, personal care products, postage, and other items -- they get that from the fund, too. Money in the account will sometimes earn interest, though particularly in our current interest rate environment, it's not likely to be a lot.

Prisoners are rarely paid very much, so it can be hard to accumulate a lot of money in such funds. For example, according to a 2014 article in The American Prospect, the median wage in state and federal prisons was, respectively, $0.20 and $0.31 per hour. Making matters worse, in many cases, the fund will be garnished (per court order) for any alimony or child support due, and even for room, board, and fees. Some prisons levy regular charges for telephone usage, too, which can be several hundred dollars. Thus, many prisoners have contacts on the outside deposit money into their accounts, by sending funds to a certain address.

When the prisoner is released, they can take possession of any money in their inmate trust fund.

While many individual ITFs may not have great sums in them, together they can add up to a lot. That was clear when a news story broke earlier this year, reporting that nearly $200,000 was found to be missing from an Oklahoma county's inmate trust fund account. An investigation into the misappropriation of funds was under way.

How to deposit money into an ITF

The rules regarding how an inmate trust fund works vary by state and prison system, but to give you a representative idea, here's one example, from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice: Funds can be deposited in eight ways -- by money order, cashier's check, ACH (Automated Clearing House) transfer, Western Union, credit card, etc. Cash, personal checks, or stamps cannot be deposited. Depending on which payment method is used, there are different directions. For example, if you mail a money order, you'd do so to a certain ITF Office address, specifying the inmate's name and ITF number.

Interestingly, the TDCJ has some cautions for depositors, too. For example, don't send money to an offender you don't know, don't send any funds to an offender as a favor for another offender, and report any cases of extortion.

Anyone heading to prison is likely to encounter the inmate trust fund and should learn the rules regarding it in their particular institution.