If the fangs of inflation took a trifling nibble out of meager incarcerated living standards over the past few months, then in November they took a chunky bite. Prices of a few items, countable on one hand, decreased modestly, while prices that rose, needing ten hands to count, bordered on the exorbitant.
Across ten categories, 50 items at the San Quentin canteen rose by a bewildering average of 27%, forcing incarcerated consumers to cut back on spending. Personal care items suffered the largest increases of any category. Figuring out that incarcerated purchasing power has declined would not require genius.
Among the increases, Ramen Noodles, commonly called “soups,” prompted the most complaints from incarcerated consumers who regard it as a bellwether indicator of living costs. Only a year ago, these critical staple goods cost 25 cents. In March, they increased to 30 cents. Now they rose by a lofty 50% to 45 cents.
For the incarcerated population, soups have a greater significance than mere nutrition. They serve as a de facto currency used by the population to pay for goods and services. Many incarcerated persons buy soups solely for barter purposes, without an intention of ever eating them.
The price increases may have ended the role of soups as the predominant medium of exchange of the prison economy. Asked about his business of selling hand-drawn greeting cards, one incarcerated artist who chose anonymity said that he has no idea what to charge for his wares now.
“My cards go for a dollar and I used to get four soups for a card. When they went to 30 cents, I still sold them for four soups, but nobody is gonna pay me four soups now. That’s too expensive. I don’t trade my soups. I eat them because they don’t upset my stomach like the chow hall [meals do]. I need them.”
In effect, the cards went from $1 (four soups at 25¢) a year ago to $1.20 in March (four soups at 30¢) and have now gone to $1.35 (three soups at 45¢). The cards have inflated by 35% year-on-year. North Block resident Ron Littlefield bought a hand-drawn greeting card and paid a bag of rice ($1.10).
Health care items (allergy relief pills, aspirin and cough drops) rose by an average of 11.3%. “Right when flu season starts, they jack up the price of cough drops,” said one incarcerated consumer who wanted to stay anonymous, adding, “If that’s not opportunistic capitalism, than what is?”
Mascara and eyeliner, two items in the personal care category of makeup, increased sharply. Transgender incarcerated person Gabby Nuñez said that the price increases make no difference. “We buy our mascara from the packages because it’s better quality. The store’s mascara is not so great.”
Another transgender incarcerated person who requested anonymity felt concerned about the increases in baby oil and the Lady Speed Stick, and said, “We [in the transgender community] buy baby oil all the time, and I can’t afford the Lady Speed Stick anymore so I have to buy [the cheaper] Dial Roll-On.” An incarcerated consumer who said that he might file a grievance about the increases said, “They squeeze us by making necessities more expensive,” adding, “Everybody needs deodorant.”
The biggest single increase of 118% hit A&E Lotion Skin Care, another item favored by the transgender community, taking the price to $2.95 from $1.35. Bar soaps (Irish Spring, Tone, Dial, and Jergens brands) also increased steeply.
Four items have decreased in price. Two meal items, mayonnaise and sriracha, and two household goods, acrylic mirrors and TV cables, lowered overall increases to 23.15%, but that did not impress the population.
“They charge less for stuff that doesn’t matter. Nobody really buys TV cables because the cells usually have them,” says West Block resident Jeffrey Miles, who then asked rhetorically, “… and how often does anybody buy a mirror? Mayonnaise only went down by 85 cents, but still costs a lot at $4.35.”
Hamisi X. Spears, North Block lead porter, said that his monthly paycheck of about $12 (less than $6 after deductions for restitution) cannot even buy two $3.10 boxes of oatmeal. “If they up the prices like that, they need to pay us more.” Spears said he works more than 40 hours a week for his $12.