Slicing and Dicing the Prison Commissary Business

Slicing and Dicing the Prison Commissary Business

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group, recently released a study examining how state prison commissaries operate. One observation made in the report is that commissaries often exploit incarcerated persons by shifting the costs of incarceration from the state to inmates and their families. The central problem, according to the report, isn’t the prices commissaries charge or that, in some cases, the profits accrue to private businesses, but rather that necessary expenses are imposed on inmates and their families.

The study examined in depth the prison commissary systems of three states: Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington. Those states were chosen because their data was easier to come by, but the study also says they present a good cross-section of state systems of varying sizes and types of management.

What they had in common, according to the study, was that inmates spent more than previously thought, with most of their spending going for food and hygiene products. Even in state-run commissary systems, private contractors can take advantage of the system to profit, which the authors claim blurs distinctions between state and private control. Further, commissary prices amount to a “significant financial burden” for the incarcerated, even when those prices are comparable to those of non-prison vendors.

On average, inmates in the three states spent $947 per year, and the type of commissary management did not affect that figure; individual spending did not vary significantly in Illinois ($1,121), where commissaries are state-run, and Massachusetts ($1,207), which contracts its commissaries to a private firm. With another state-run system, Washington had significantly lower individual spending ($513), but this stemmed from different policies by its corrections department on what property inmates may have.

The leading categories of purchases were ready food, including the ever-popular ramen noodles, topping the list at an average of $277 yearly per person, followed by snack items ($191) and beverages ($117). The most-bought non-food category, hygiene and health products ($89), narrowly edged out another food category, ingredients ($88).

Where does the money for commissary purchases come from? While some inmates may have income from work in prison, the pay can be as low as $1 per day. While these scant earnings are likely to be spent in the commissary, the study concludes most commissary purchases are paid for through funds transferred into inmate accounts by family members. Inmates without that income source probably use the commissary little or not at all. Washington’s commissaries reserve certain brands of necessities, like soap and toothpaste, for “indigent” inmates.

How reasonable are prison commissary prices? A comparison of prices for items sold in the three states’ commissaries with the same or comparable items sold in non-prison locations finds commissary prices are close to, or in some cases, even lower than, prices elsewhere.

But the study notes one large and growing discrepancy: digital services, such as messaging, games, money transfers, release cards, and the like, which are generally far more expensive in prisons than elsewhere, less transparent in their pricing and management, and harder for prison commissaries to supervise vendors. The report recommends that policymakers guard against commissary price-gouging in such fast-growing and richly priced services.