A new Prison Policy Initiative report takes an eye-opening look at prison commissaries, an overlooked but central part of life behind bars. It finds that while prices for staples are not exorbitant, inmates spend on average nearly $1,000 a year, mostly for basic needs like soap and food.
Incarcerated men and women each spend nearly $1,000 a year at prison commissaries, and most of their purchases are staples like food, drinks, hygiene products, and over-the-counter medicines, according to a new report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).
PPI says the report, “The Company Store,” is a first-of-its-kind data analysis of what author Stephen Raher calls “an overlooked but central part of prison life.” Raher, an Oregon attorney, concludes that commissaries are “nickel-and-diming” inmates and their families by forcing them to pay for essentials like food and toiletries.
The report focuses on Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington, states that compile detailed statewide commissary sales data. Among the findings:
- Incarcerated people spent an average of $947 per person annually through commissaries, well beyond the typical inmates earnings of a few hundred dollars per year.
- Three-quarters of their commissary spending was for basic needs, not luxuries. Food and beverages accounted for the bulk of purchases, indicating a need to supplement the food provided by the prisons.
- Surprisingly, prices for some common items were lower than those found at traditional free-world retailers. Other commissary prices were higher, but only slightly.
- The most obvious price-gouging was found in new digital services marketed to prisons, such as email and music streaming. Telecommunications providers are aggressively pushing these products and services for inmates, often charging prices far higher than those found outside prisons.
Prison commissaries are big business. In 2016, PPI estimated they had total sales of $1.6 billion a year nationwide. As the retail engine behind bars, Raher says, the facilities present an opportunity for prisons to shift the costs to incarcerated people and their families, often enriching private companies in the process. He says prices were less of a problem than the unfairness of a system that forced incarcerated people or their families to pay for basic needs.
According to the report, the 43,000 inmates in Illinois spent $48.4 million in commissaries in fiscal 2017. The 17,000 Washington inmates spent $8.7 million, and the 9,700 Massachusetts prison population spent $11.7 million.
The reports says inmates on average spent $277 per year on ready-to-eat food, $191 on snack food, $117 on hygiene, $88 on food ingredients, $36 each on condiments and electronics, $35 on clothing, $32 on mail and stationery, $26 on household goods and supplies, and $20 on miscellany.
On average, Washington inmates spent $513 each, about half as much as those in Illinois and Massachusetts. Raher says the reason for that difference isn’t clear but that Washington’s personal property policies for inmates are at least partially responsible.
Raher notes that the state spending averages are skewed because many poor inmates spend little to nothing at commissaries. Washington commissaries stock certain items that are available only to people who qualify as indigent. Based on annual sales of “indigent toothpaste” and “indigent soap,” it appears that as many as one-third of the people in Washington’s prisons are indigent.
Raher says the data raises many concerns for justice reform advocates.
He writes, “If people in prison are resorting to the commissary to buy essential goods, like food and hygiene products, does it really make sense to charge a day’s prison wages (or more) for one of these goods? Should states knowingly force the families of incarcerated people to pay for essential goods their loved ones can’t afford, often racking up exorbitant money transfer fees in the process?”
He also criticizes the use of free-world prices for digital services.
“In the long term, when incarcerated people can’t afford goods and services vital to their well-being, society pays the price,” he concludes. “In the short term, however, these costs are falling on families, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately come from communities of color.
“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.”
David Krajicek is a contributing editor of The Crime Report