San Quentin residents are encountering higher prices at the canteen window. For example, the cost of a quart of ice cream is now $4.45 for a ten-ounce carton, up almost half again from the October price. And in Walkenhorst’s latest catalog many incarcerated people have probably noticed sharp increases in the price of quarterly package items.
Rising prices are being pushed by inflation. In January, inflation accelerated at its fastest pace in 40 years, according to The Economist. Nationwide, inflation’s chief gauge, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), has climbed 7.5%. American consumers already feel the pain, particularly since wages have not risen to match that increase.
The CPI, published monthly by the U.S. Department of Commerce, uses a basket of commonly bought consumer goods as a baseline for the index. Statisticians then compare the total cost of the basket to the cost from a year ago. The increase accounts for the rate of inflation.
Canteen customers suffering pain in the pocket
Inflation affects incarcerated persons both directly and indirectly. Direct effects include higher prices at canteen. Add to that the stagnant wages paid to incarcerated workers, and affording a carton of ice cream for someone who earns 15 cents an hour now takes 10 extra hours of work.
San Quentin’s canteen, measured from October 2021 to January 2022, has raised its prices by almost 9%. Package vendor Walkenhorst, measured from Fall 2021 to Spring 2022, has raised a sample basket of goods by about 12%. Therefore, package products that cost about $100 in the Fall 2021 catalog would cost about $112 in the Spring 2022 catalog.
Incarcerated persons have only a few vendors from which to buy goods, including Access, Walkenhorst’s, Union Supply, and canteen. The price increases of these vendors determine the rate of inflation for incarcerated persons.
Inflation also affects incarcerated people indirectly. Because of their low wages, some receive support from outside. Such support usually comes from friends or family in the form of fund transfers to trust accounts or package purchases.
If groceries and gas back home cost more, outside supporters may be less able to provide help. Reduced support from outside, combined with higher costs at canteen, squeeze incarcerated people.
U.S. inflation is low compared to other countries: The “economic & financial indicators” in The Economist’s Feb. 26 issue list inflation in Turkey at 48.7% and for Argentina at 50.7%. U.S. inflation is nowhere near such levels.
How high will inflation go in the U.S.? No one has the answer to that. Baseball legend Yogi Berra said, “Forecasts remain difficult, especially about the future.”