Inmates in many prisons must pay for basic necessities, and prices on those items have been rising. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Across the nation, prison commissaries are raising prices on items that many consider basic necessities — from deodorant to fresh fruit — not provided by the state department of corrections. The markups come as decades-high inflation is also squeezing inmates’ families, making it harder for them to help.
It’s a burden that families shouldn’t have to shoulder, advocates say, and a situation that some worry will lead to unrest or violence.
Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank focused on policies in the criminal justice and legal system, said that by forcing prisoners and their families to buy many essential items in the prison commissary instead of providing them for free, prisons are shifting the costs of incarceration onto them and their loved ones.
“The prison and jail system always has the power to play hardball with the provider to get prices down in order to make items more affordable for the consumers but a prison system that’s already content with foisting the costs of things like over-the-counter medication onto incarcerated people probably is not going to work very hard to do that,” she said.
Jodi Hocking, the founder and executive director of the Nevada prisoner advocacy group Return Strong, said the strain is hard on the families.
“We have families that cross all different socioeconomic lines,” said Hocking, whose husband is incarcerated, “but a lot of families, once your loved one goes to prison, you’ve now lost your second income and you’re now dealing with kids on your own.”
Low wages, high prices
Inflation is, of course, only part of the problem.
Shannon Ross, a former inmate and now executive director of The Community, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit focused on decarceration and re-entry, said the biggest issue with the price of commissary items in Wisconsin prisons is that prisoners have such low incomes.
Wages for inmates are well below the federal minimum wage. According to a 2022 ACLU report, inmates in state prisons are paid on average between 13 cents and 52 cents per hour for a “non-industry job,” such as janitorial work or maintenance and repairs, which make up the majority of prison jobs. In Wisconsin, for non-industry jobs, the pay was between 12 and 42 cents per hour.
Jose Colón, who is at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York for a murder committed when he was a teenager, makes about $7 every two weeks as a clerk in the education department at Sing Sing, which he told States Newsroom is one of the better paying programs for prisoners.
Sing Sing raised the limit on the amount prisoners could spend in the commissary to account for the higher prices but that doesn’t help if money is still hard to come by.
“You go into the commissary one week and it will be a certain price and then the following week the price goes up a little bit, whereas it might only go up 25 or 50 cents but that’s significant when we’re only dealing with a set amount that we can spend per commissary,” Colón said.
Prison commissaries are often run by companies that contract with the state, and the state may also get a cut of the profits. That’s the case in Kentucky and Nevada, two states where price increases have come under scrutiny this year.
Kentucky prisoners saw a 7.2% rise in commissary prices in July, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Items like a 4.6-ounce tube of Crest toothpaste, which costs $1.38 at the local Walmart, cost $3.77 at the prison commissary, and a 3-ounce Speed Stick deodorant was $4.52, compared to $1.98 at Walmart, according to the Center’s report. Katherine Williams, spokeswoman for the department of corrections, told the news outlet inflation was responsible.
Kentucky’s prison commissaries are run by Keefe Group, which runs commissaries in 14 states according to its website. Keefe is also the vendor for Nevada’s prisons and, along with the state Department of Corrections, earlier this year faced criticism from elected officials for overcharging prisoners after a state audit found most items marked up as much as 40%.
Nicholas Shepack, Nevada state deputy director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a criminal justice advocacy group, said in an email to States Newsroom that such mark-ups are supposed to go through a public approval process.
After the audit, Keefe Group wrote to “Nevada Department of Corrections: “Keefe Supply and the DOC Commissary have been hit with massive increases over the last year in almost all commodities. Keefe/DOC Commissary are not immune to world events such as supply chain shortages, shipping cost increases and increased labor costs.”
The Nevada Department of Corrections did not respond to questions from States Newsroom about commissary pricing. But the NDOC’s Deputy Director William Quenga previously told the Nevada Current that the department was in the process of putting together a report on cost analysis and profit margins.
Inmates often rely on the commissary to provide more satisfying meals than what they are served. A 2020 report from Impact Justice, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice system policy, found that a majority of prisoners said they rarely or never had access to fresh vegetables and had been served rotten or spoiled food.
Corrections officials in multiple states defended the food served to prisons.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections responded to a question from States Newsroom by saying that “Canteen items are not intended to supplement meals in Wisconsin DOC institutions. Meals have a required calorie count.”
Betty Guess said her son, who is incarcerated in Nevada, told her the food served is inedible. But she can’t help him get anything better from the commissary, where prices have risen in the past couple of months.
Guess said she and her husband are retired and living on a fixed income. They pay for phones and email to check in on their son, but can’t afford to send any more money for commissary items. She worries about his health.
“He’s still a human being. They all are. And they deserve to be treated humanely no matter what their crime is,” Guess said.
José Colón’s wife, Janette Colón, also worries about her husband’s health. He underwent a thyroidectomy several years ago and she said she’s noticed he’s losing weight. Colon, who is the Bronx community leader for Release Aging People in Prison, used to supplement her husband’s commissary account with healthy items purchased at stores on the outside, but the state instituted a package ban this summer cutting out that option.
A car accident several years ago left her unable to work a full-time job, so she relies on Social Security Disability Insurance to support herself. She also provides financial support to her 19-year-old daughter, who is in college, and her mother.
“My biggest fear is that God forbid something happens to me that I won’t be able to provide anymore. So I always made sure to send money so that he can have a nice amount of money in his commissary. But that’s dwindled,” she said.
That puts her in a difficult situation, Colón said.
“What do I select? What do I choose? Do I choose my health over my husband not eating?”
In order to receive hygiene kits with toothpaste and shampoo, materials to send letters or other such necessities without paying for them, inmates have to be considered indigent in almost every state prison and federal prison, according to a 2021 Prison Policy Initiative Survey.
The amount of money prisoners can have in their prison account to be considered indigent varies from state to state, but in 13 states, including Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and Virginia, the account must stay under $5 to qualify. In 18 states, if an inmates’ account goes over the limit, they must pay back the state department of corrections for some of the benefits they received.
A push for change
Prisoner advocacy groups, prisoners and families are advocating for policy changes to address the high prices, and some lawmakers are starting to address the issue.
In Nevada, a bill that would be proposed for Nevada’s 2023 legislative session would aim to keep commissary prices in check, according to the Nevada Current.
In Virginia, members of a work group authorized by the General Assembly who weren’t affiliated with the state Department of Corrections recommended cutting the 9% markup on commissary goods and replacing that revenue with $4 million from the general fund. In a report produced by the group, reformers also suggested that to help defray the costs of purchases, families of prisoners be given a $500 tax refund or rebate. The working group came out of a bill introduced by Virginia Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Loudoun), who is considering filing a similar bill next year, according to the Virginia Mercury.
And in Massachusetts, Michael Cox, executive director of Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist group focused on LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners, said he is optimistic that a bill for fair pricing in the state’s commissaries would pass in the coming session even though efforts to include it in the 2023 budget bill did succeed. The bill would require that state prisons, correctional facilities, county correctional facilities, and entities contracting with them would not charge more than 3% over the purchase price for anything sold at the commissary, among other measures.
Changes to ensure that prisoners have affordable access to decent food and other necessities are necessary not just to provide relief to prisoners and families but for safety, say advocates and prisoners.
“It creates an atmosphere of violence,” said Colón, the prisoner in New York. “It creates an unsafe environment because now people look to rob people and look to prey on each other because ‘You have something that I want.’”
Betty Guess agreed.
“It does make them angry and it does tend to increase violence and they get into more fights with each other,” she said. “It makes it a more dangerous environment for the people who work there, the corrections officers and the other staff. All of that is a heightened level of volatility.”
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