SB 474: California Sen. Josh Becker hopes to eliminate excessive markups on commissary items
“Coming soon, Top Ramen noodles will be $1.00, if you don’t support the new BASICs act.” That’s what a sign reads on a San Quentin housing unit bulletin board.
Senate Bill 474 (the Basic Affordable Supplies for Incarcerated Californians Act) is authored by Sen. Josh Becker (D-Peninsula). The bill seeks to eliminate excessive markups on items sold at canteens in prisons across California.
“This bill alleviates cost pressures for incarcerated people and their families by eliminating price markups on items purchased in California’s prison canteen stores,” wrote Becker.
SB 474 is estimated to save incarcerated people and their families $30 million each year.
According to a 2020 Inmate Welfare Fund audit report, the average markup of CDCR canteen items was 65% above prices paid to vendors.
In a 2020 report from Impact Justice, three-fifths of formerly incarcerated people surveyed said they had not been able to afford canteen purchases, and 75% reported that access to food was limited by their own and their families’ finances.
“When I can’t afford canteen there is an issue,” said incarcerated person Anthony Tafoya. “It’s too expensive. My family puts money on my books every month, but I went from spending $50 to $70 and now $200 for some of the same items at canteen. It’s ridiculous.”
Incarcerated people at San Quentin are allowed to shop at the canteen once per month and can spend up to $240 if they have a prison job assignment.
California prisoners generally make between 8 cents and 37 cents per hour, according to the California Code of Regulations title 15. 3041.2.
Carl Raybon has an 18-cents-per-hour clerk job and a $15,000 restitution fine. Fifty percent of his monthly check goes toward his restitution. He is usually left with between $9 and $12 to spend at canteen.
“I cannot purchase anything outside of basic necessities,” said Raybon. “Purchasing anything from vendors is out of the question. A book of stamps costs $12. I think if they raise the canteen prices they should consider raising our wages to meet the demands of those prices.”
There have been no pay raises for prisoners in California in over 40 years. However, here at San Quentin some prisoners say prices on favored items continue to rise every month.
Incarcerated people like Tafoya and Raybon do have access to weekly indigent supplies of one small bar of soap, one roll of toilet paper, one razor, one toothbrush, tooth powder and floss bands.
They have no alternative but to purchase scented soaps, breath-freshening toothpaste, moisturizing lotion, hair grease and deodorant. Some prisons even sell the incarcerated tampons, toilet tissue and bottled water.
According to a San Quentin canteen price list, scented soap ranges from $1.00 to $1.65, deodorant costs from $2.10 to $3.75, lotion $2.95 to $6.40, hair grease $3.30 to $3.65, shampoo $1.95 to 2.05, toothpaste $2.30 to $5.50, laundry soap $1.10 and laundry powder $2.40.
According to the report “Who pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” issued by the Ella Baker Center in 2015, the markups impose a heavy burden on families who support an incarcerated loved one because nearly two in three families with an incarcerated family member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs, including food and housing. Nearly half the families surveyed were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction.
SB 474 is being co-sponsored by several policy advocacy groups including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Women’s Foundation California, Legal Aid at Work, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. It is also supported by San Quentin’s Civic Engagement Group.
“The passage of this bill is of great importance to the prison population and our families who suffer the financial burden of these price increases,” said Steven Warren, the Inside Fellow for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.