California inmates accuse prison commissaries of price gouging

Food, toiletries and over-the-counter medicines have been marked up so high that many prisoners are simply priced out.

By D. Razor Babb, Capital & Main

Jose Herrera had seen enough.

“Somebody needs to do a story on these outrageous canteen prices,” the inmate said, referring to the steady and seemingly endless price increases at the Mule Creek State Prison commissaries. “Some of these guys can’t even afford the basics.”

To those who can afford it — and many can’t — the prison canteens are a vital lifeline where inmates can purchase over-the-counter medication, toiletries and food to supplement the prison meals that are widely regarded as tasteless, lacking in nutrition and often inedible.

Prices at the canteens are marked up by an average of 65% over what prison officials pay suppliers for everything from coffee to soap.

In the last year, the cost of shopping at the canteens has soared. Refried beans jumped from $2.20 to $3.00, coffee creamer from $1.85 to $2.95 and cookies from $1.85 to $3.00 at the prison’s five canteens, one in each of the facilities’ prison yards.

The price hikes have been met with outrage from inmates who complain they are being gouged by what they derisively call the “canteen cartels.”

Inmates may spend up to $240 a month at the canteens, and some spend the limit. But at $9.05 for an 8-ounce jar of Folgers coffee and $4.45 for mayonnaise, the money goes fast.

Many inmates can’t afford to shop at the canteens at all. An Impact Justice survey found that 60% of former prisoners said they didn’t have the money to go to the canteen, while 75% said their access was severely limited by their meager prison paychecks and strained family finances.

It’s a system, the report suggests, in which those with the least suffer the most.

The complaints have grown loud enough that state Sen. Josh Becker (D-Peninsula) introduced legislation earlier this year to roll back canteen prices starting next year. The bill, SB 474, The bill would reduce the markups to no more than 35% above prices paid to vendors. This month, the bill passed the Assembly and state Senate almost unanimously, and it now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

Becker calculates that the legislation would save California inmates and their families as much as $30 million a year.

In SB 474, known as the Basic Affordable Supplies for Incarcerated Californians Act, Becker argues that many of the items sold at the canteens are “integral to the health and well-being of incarcerated people” and should be supported by the prison’s general fund rather than by “the incarcerated population and their families who are disproportionately impoverished and people of color.”

The legislation would also add a level of transparency by requiring an annual audit of canteen finances and forcing wardens to post the audit at the canteens and prison library so inmates can see how their money is being spent.

Jamel Walker, co-chair of Mule Creek’s Inmate Advisory Committee at E Facility, views the canteens as a “legal monopoly,” the lone store in town for the incarcerated community, with no price competition and contracts negotiated behind closed doors between the Department of Corrections and vendors.

“Canteen is a scam,” he said. “It’s turned into nothing more than a money-making con game, with the convicts being scammed. All that money they make doesn’t go to benefit the prisoners.”

According to the Inmate Welfare Fund monthly statement of operations, the canteen sales at Mule Creek State Prison totaled $3.07 million for fiscal year 2022-2023. Minus the cost of goods sold, salaries, supplies and various allocations, only $27,000 was left to benefit prisoners at the five yards at Mule Creek.

In “The Company Store: A Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries,” attorney Stephen Raher, who works with the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative, argues that families of the incarcerated are being forced to subsidize the prison system.

“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,’” he writes.

“When their wages are not enough, they must rely on family members to transfer money to their accounts — meaning that families are effectively forced to subsidize the prison system,” Raher writes. “Others in prison who lack such support systems simply can’t afford the commissary at all.”

Alia Cruz, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an email that, by law, prison canteens must be self-sufficient and that the 65% mark-ups are necessary to cover supplies, salaries and other costs. Excess funds, she wrote, are deposited into the Inmate Welfare Fund.

Regardless, shopping the canteens is a luxury many can’t afford.

A 2020 audit of the Inmate Welfare Fund by the California Department of Finance found that California inmates earn anywhere from eight to 37 cents an hour, averaging $36 a month before fines, restitutions and other costs are subtracted.

“Sasha,” who asked that his real name not be used out of fear of retribution, earns eight cents an hour working in the kitchen. Each morning kitchen workers are released from their housing units and shuffle to work in the dark. It is hard, thankless labor for which Sasha earns roughly $6 a month. If he refuses to work, he risks being written up. Write-ups can sink an inmate’s parole hearing, which could result in additional confinement.

Sasha supplements his scant income by smuggling food from the kitchen to sell on the black market or to give to prisoners worse off than he is. In doing so, he risks a write-up for “stealing food,” a chargeable offense that could extend his sentence.

Rick Stevens says he makes about $32 a month as an inmate caregiver. After restitution, he’s left with $16, just enough for toothpaste ($2.40), soap ($1), deodorant ($3) and coffee ($9.05).

“I used to be able to afford fish or canned chicken, but not anymore. I’m pretty much stuck with whatever comes on the tray.”

Prison meals are notoriously unappetizing, and inmates supplement their diet by mixing up cell-cooked spreads of rice ($1.60), beans ($3), mackerel ($1.50), tuna ($1.50) or pouches of chili ($2.60), when they can afford it. Some prisoners, those who have the means, refuse to eat in the chow hall at all and live on canteen food and quarterly packages from family or loved ones.

According to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control report, correctional inmates are 6.4 times more likely to become ill from spoiled or contaminated food than those on the outside. What better incentive to compel prisoners to spend at the company store, some cynical inmates suggest.

More times than not, the strategically placed garbage cans get more use than the dining room tables, as would-be diners dump entire trays of undercooked beans and overcooked carrots into the bins.

One Mule Creek State Prison inmate put it this way:

‘When I looked down at what was on my tray, it was looking back at me. Whatever the hell it was, it wasn’t food.”

D. Razor Babb is an inmate at Mule Creek State Prison. He is the founding editor of the Mule Creek Post and a social justice reporter for the Prison Journalism Project, the Davis Vanguard Incarcerated Press and Empowerment Avenue.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main.

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