lack of competition results in soaring costs for prisoners
The costs taxpayers spend to incarcerate men and women are often augmented by prisoners and their families, according to a study by Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).
For the basic necessities state prisons do not provide, prisoners must find a way to fill this deficit. Prison commissaries are one method of transference of a state’s obligation to care for prisoners. The result, more often than not, is the enrichment of private companies that provide packages to prisoners, PPI reported.
“Commissary operators have a legal monopoly,” according to PPI, “so they don’t have to worry about price competition, and thus do not incur costs associated with special sales or discounts.”
PPI analyzed commissary sales in Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington and, “We found that incarcerated people in these states spent more on commissary than our previous research suggested, and most of that money goes to food and hygiene products.”
“In Illinois and Massachusetts, incarcerated people spent an average of over $1,000 per (prisoner) at the commissary during the course of a year,” PPI report- ed. “Per-person commissary sales for the three sampled states amounted to $947, well over the typical amount incarcerated people can earn working regular prison jobs in these states ($180 to $660 per year).”
“Incarceration is becoming increasingly expensive — especially for those behind bars and their families”
“I remember when we could still get packages from home,” said Steve ‘Rhashiyd’ Zinnamon, 53, a prisoner at San Quentin State Prison, who has been incarcerated since 1995. “That was their [his family’s] way of supplementing to fill the void.”
In California, personal packages mailed from home ended sometime between 2003 and 2004.
The California Code of Regulations, Title 15 states, in part: “Inmate packages shall be ordered by inmates or their correspondents via a departmentally-approved in- mate package vendor.” There are similar provisions to purchase items on the prison commissary or canteen.
“For many people in prison, their meager earnings go right back to the prison commissary, not unlike the sharecroppers and coal miners who were forced to use the ‘company store,’” PPI re- ported.
“You got people that don’t even have a pay number (job) so they can’t even go to the store,” said inmate Eric Post, 54. He also said the price of items on canteen lists in California have increased, but inmate wages have not kept pace with inflation over the years.
According to PPI, when prisoners’ wages can’t cover the cost of canteen items, they have to turn to family members to send money to their prison trust accounts, which means “families are effectively forced to subsidize the prison system.”
Those who have no out- side support can’t afford the canteen. Some turn to prison “underground” economy and the barter system.
Inmates who arrive in California prison reception centers receive a “fish kit” that generally contains a roll of toilet paper, a four-inch tooth brush, a finger-size tube of toothpaste, a comb, a golf pencil, a small bar of soap and a single-blade razor. All food is served in prison dining halls.
“Not surprisingly, food dominates the sales reports.” PPI reported, adding “prison and jail cafeterias are notorious for serving small portions of unappealing food. Another leading problem with prison food is inadequate nutritional content.”
For a price, a prison commissary can serve as a supplement to the deficiency of calories in dining halls, but “it does not compensate for poor quality,” PPI reported. “No fresh food is available, and most commissary food items are heavily processed. Snacks and ready-to-eat food are major sellers, which is unsurprising given that many people need more food than the prison provides, and the easiest — if not only — alter- natives are ramen and candy bars.”
“The poorest people in prison, such as those consid- ered ‘indigent’ by the state, spend little to nothing at the commissary,” PPI reported.
Some California prisoners whose families can afford to make deposits on a loved one’s prison trust account refuse to do so because of the exorbitant percentage of restitution fines imposed by sentencing courts and deducted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Terry Kitchen, 33, said he used to shop at the prison canteen when restitution was 22 percent. “Because restitution is so high, they’re robbing from my family,” he said.
In the last 20 years, the CDCR has raised the percentage of restitution deductions from inmate trust accounts from 22 percent to 33 percent, 44 percent, reaching its current 55 percent. And, up until a couple of months ago, inmates were charged a $5 copayment for requesting healthcare services.
“Incarceration is becoming increasingly expensive — especially for those behind bars and their families,” PPI reported. “While prisons find new ways to shift the costs of corrections to incarcerated people (think medical co-pays and pay-to-stay fees), vendors are aggressively pushing new digital products that will further monetize incarcerated people.”
The PPI study also outlined the expansive nature of other monopoly contracts given exclusively to vendors serving “a captive market.”
“You got people that don’t even have a pay number (job) so they can’t even go to the store”
“In the long term, when incarcerated people can’t afford goods and services vital to their well-being, society pays the price. In the short term, however, these costs are falling on families, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately come from communities of color,” PPI concluded. “If the cost of food and soap is too much for states to bear, they should find ways to reduce the number of people in prison, rather than nickel- and-diming incarcerated people and their families.”
Prison Policy Initiative is a non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society.