Prison commissaries are hiking rates on products many consider basic necessities, from deodorant to fresh fruit. High inflation makes it tougher for convicts’ families to contribute. Advocates argue families shouldn’t bear this responsibility, and some fear unrest or bloodshed.
Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank focused on criminal justice and legal system policies, said by forcing prisoners and their families to buy many essential items in the prison commissary, prisons are shifting the costs of incarceration onto them and their loved ones.
“The prison and jail system always has the potential to play hardball with the provider to get prices down,” she said. “But a prison administration that’s already comfortable with foisting the expense of things like over-the-counter medication onto jailed individuals generally won’t work very hard to achieve that.”
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Return Strong founder Jodi Hocking said the strain is hard on families.
“We have families that cross all socioeconomic lines,” said Hocking, whose husband is incarcerated. “But once your loved one goes to prison, you’ve lost your second income and you’re dealing with kids on your own.”
High prices, low wages
The problem isn’t only inflation.
Shannon Ross, a former inmate and executive director of a Wisconsin group focusing on incarceration and re-entry, said prisoners’ low finances are the main concern with commissary prices.
Inmate wages are below the minimum wage. According to a 2022 ACLU analysis, convicts in state jails make between 13 cents and 52 cents per hour for “non-industry employment” including cleaning work or maintenance and repairs. Wisconsin non-industry jobs paid 12 to 42 cents per hour.
Jose Colón, who is at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York for a murder he committed as a youth, makes around $7 every two weeks as a clerk in the education department. Sing upped the commissary spending cap to accommodate higher prices, but it doesn’t help if money is scarce.
“You go to the commissary one week and it’s a particular price, and then the next week it goes up a little bit, maybe 25 or 50 cents, but that’s substantial when we only have a limited amount to spend,” Colón said.
You go to the commissary one week and it’s a particular price, then the next week the price goes up 25 or 50 cents, but that’s substantial when we only have a limited amount to spend per commissary.
State-contracted enterprises often run prison commissaries, and the state may obtain a part of the revenues. This year, Kentucky and Nevada have been scrutinised for pricing rises.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting says commissary costs rose 7.2% in July. According to the Center’s research, a 4.6-ounce tube of Crest toothpaste costs $3.77 at the jail commissary, while a 3-ounce Speed Stick deodorant costs $4.52. Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Williams blamed that on inflation.
Keefe Group runs prison commissaries in 14 states, including Kentucky. Keefe is also the jail vendor for Nevada, which was criticised this year for overcharging prisoners after a state audit found most commodities were marked up 40%.
Nicholas Shepack, Nevada state deputy director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said mark-ups must be approved by the public.
Keefe Group responded to the Nevada Department of Corrections after the audit, “Keefe Supply and the DOC Commissary have seen substantial increases in practically all commodities.” Keefe/DOC Commissary isn’t immune to supply chain shortages, shipping cost increases, and labour cost increases.
States Newsroom asked the Nevada Department of Corrections about commissary prices. Deputy Director William Quenga informed the Nevada Current that the DOC was working on a cost analysis and profit margins report.
Inmates typically rely on the commissary for more substantial meals. Impact Justice, a charity focused on criminal justice policy, discovered that most prisoners rarely or never had access to fresh vegetables and were provided rotting food.
Multiple states defended prison food. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections told States Newsroom that canteen products don’t enhance meals. Meals have calorie requirements.
Betty Guess’ son in Nevada prison stated the food is inedible. She can’t help him at the commissary, where costs have soared.
Guess is retired and lives on a fixed income. They can afford phones and email to check on their son, but not commissary stuff. His health disturbs her.
“He’s human. Everyone is. Guess: “They deserve compassionate treatment regardless of their crime.”
He’s human. Everyone is. Whatever their offence, they deserve humane treatment.
Janette Colón concerned about José’s health. She’s observed he’s losing weight since his thyroidectomy years ago. Bronx community leader Colon used to augment her husband’s commissary account with healthful foods from other retailers, but the state banned packages this summer, eliminating that option. Due to a vehicle accident, she can’t work full-time and relies on SSDI. She supports her college-aged daughter and mother.
My biggest fear is that I won’t be able to provide. I always sent him money for his commissary. “That’s decreased,” she remarked.
Colón says this puts her in a bind.
“What to choose?” Choose! Is my health more important than my husband’s eating? ”
In practically every state prison and federal prison, convicts must be declared impoverished to get free hygiene kits, letter-writing supplies, and other requirements.
In 13 states, including Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Virginia, prisoners’ prison accounts must be under $5 to be labelled destitute. In 18 states, if an inmate’s account goes over the limit, they must repay some perks.
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Prisoner advocacy groups, prisoners, and families are advocating for policy changes to address high prices. Some lawmakers are addressing the issue.
According to the Nevada Current, a bill planned for 2023 would try to control commissary pricing.
In Virginia, a working group recommended replacing the 9% commissary markup with $4 million from the general fund. The report suggested giving prisoners’ families a $500 tax refund or rebate to help with purchases. The working group was created by Virginia Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon), who may file a similar bill next year.
Michael Cox, executive director of Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist group focused on LGBTQ and HIV-positive prisoners, is optimistic a bill for fair pricing in the state’s commissaries will pass in the coming session, even though efforts to include it in the 2023 budget bill succeeded. State prisons, correctional facilities, county correctional facilities, and entities contracting with them cannot charge more than 3% over the purchase price for commissary items.
Advocates and prisoners say ensuring prisoners have affordable access to decent food and other necessities is necessary for their safety.
New York prisoner Colón said it promotes violence. “It creates an unsafe environment because people rob each other because ‘You have something I want.'”
“It makes them angry, which increases violence and fights,” she said. It’s more unsafe for correctional officers and other personnel. All that raises volatility.
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