Your NPR news source
Prison gate

M. Spencer Green

Why inflation price hikes are even worse behind bars

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and Facebook.

When the price of a can of Maxwell House coffee increased 34 cents from a year ago at the commissary in New Jersey State Prison, Shakeil Price and many others in his unit had to cut back. At SCI Coal Township in Pennsylvania, Richard Mercaldo said the staple items he usually buys to hold him over between the prison’s scheduled meals, such as packages of ramen noodles and cookies, are getting smaller and more expensive. And at Logan Correctional Center in Illinois, Erika Ray said the $150 she budgets each month for food and hygiene items no longer covers her basic needs. “I cannot afford to purchase deodorant for $7,” she said.

The rising cost of groceries and other goods due to historic inflation has jolted shoppers across the country. Grocery prices increased by 8.4% in the last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In many state prisons, incarcerated people saw even steeper price hikes.

The Marshall Project requested commissary prices from all 50 state departments of correction to understand the scope of inflation behind bars. Twenty-six departments responded. Because the states contract with different suppliers, the price lists and increases vary from state to state. Still, incarcerated people across the country are paying more now for staple items such as peanut butter, soap, coffee and toothpaste than they did a year ago, The Marshall Project found. Price increases for some items are higher in prison than on the outside.

A jar of peanut butter, for example, now costs between 25% and 35% more across the state prisons. In the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the price of peanut butter increased 61 cents, even though the portion size decreased by 2 ounces. Soap is more expensive, too. Incarcerated people could be paying between 4% and 80% more per bar, depending on where they’re imprisoned. In Illinois state prisons, the cost of a pack of instant ramen now costs 32 cents — a 68% increase from the year before.

Prices have soared across entire prison systems, too. In Pennsylvania, commissary prices increased by nearly 27%, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an advocacy organization supporting people incarcerated in the state.

These increases are especially burdensome for people behind bars. Prison wages are notoriously low. And incarcerated people often rely on items purchased from commissaries when the state-issued meals and personal hygiene items fall short. People behind bars also pay an additional “tax” on these items, experts said, in the form of unregulated markups that tack on as much as 66% of the price.

“Anyone who has been following the news, it’s a constant discussion point: inflation, inflation,” said Noah Barth, who helped author the Pennsylvania report. “We can see that for people in prison, who were being grossly overcharged in the first place, their rate of increase is two, three, four times higher.”

Inedible or mysterious food, small portions, and hunger are common in prison. Price, who is incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, said he gets hungry again most evenings because dinner is served at 4:30 p.m. He’s learned to supplement his dinners with items he can buy from the commissary. His go-to meal is called a “hook up” — ramen or rice topped with canned sausage or mackerel, beans or corn, and melted cheese when he can get it. But the prices of the ingredients for a “hook up” are higher than they were last year.

Price has kept close track of the increases. A 10-ounce pouch of beans, for example, which used to cost $1.21 cents in September 2021, now costs $1.51.

“These are the types of meals put together to compensate for the poor meal plans that the DOC offers,” Price wrote The Marshall Project via email on a prison tablet. “Under these unfortunate circumstances it is imperative for prisoners to purchase the food and snacks that are sold on commissary at unreasonable prices.”

Rising food costs strain even the most well-planned budgets, since incarcerated people make meager wages if they are paid at all. Two out of three people behind bars work while incarcerated, an ACLU analysis found. The average hourly wages max out at 52 cents an hour. Most prison jobs involve maintaining prison operations such as working in the kitchen, libraries, laundry rooms and commissaries. These are often low-paid or unpaid positions.

Before Corey Campbell returned home last year after nearly two years at SCI Mahanoy in Pennsylvania, he worked for 19 cents an hour sweeping, mopping and sanitizing his cellblock. He said the money he earned wasn’t enough to consistently buy packaged foods like chili and soup. Campbell was lucky to get money from his mother, JoAnn Wyjadka, to afford these basics. Still, she said, he came home “skinny and anemic.”

Commissary costs vary by geography. Each state has a different system for determining commissary prices and contracts, but many contract with several major companies such as Keefe Group and Aramark. In states like North Carolina, retail decisions are left up to each facility. Other states such as Florida and Virginia use statewide contracts.

Depending on the contract, the vendors have different levels of authority to adjust prices. One contract between Keefe Group and the Florida Department of Corrections, for example, gives Keefe permission to request price increases for individual products once a year. The company must provide 90 days’ notice before the contract anniversary and include a justification for the increase. One-year increases are capped at 10%.

Some price increases are because of opportunistic corporations more than rising costs, said Nick Shepack, Nevada State Deputy Director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center. As inflation soared in 2021, major food companies such as Colgate, PepsiCo, Maruchan and Velveeta sent letters to Keefe Group citing the high cost of raw materials, packaging, freight transport, supply chain issues and labor shortages as causes for price increases. Researchers at Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization working to eliminate fees in the criminal justice system, have been collecting these notices over the last two years through public records requests. In a letter to the department, Keefe explained that it could not absorb the higher costs, and passed these increases off onto the incarcerated.

“Once it started happening, it became an industry norm,” Shepack said. “Everybody did it to keep up.”

It is not the first time companies raised prices during a period of economic disruption, said Bianca Tylek, founder of Worth Rises, which examines private sector influence in the criminal justice system. During the pandemic and amid fears of supply chain issues, some commissaries in jails increased all their prices, too.

“Not every single product was impacted by supply chain issues, that’s unreasonable and not how things work,” Tylek said. “There’s no doubt that it’s an easy narrative for the corporations that operate in this space to use to try to justify exacerbating their predatory practices.”

Despite the economic upheaval, prison suppliers have had record profits. Aramark reported $16 billion in revenue in 2022, a 35% increase from 2021 and the highest income ever recorded by the company. Keefe is a billion-dollar company. Because it is privately held, it does not publicly report its revenue.

Aramark and Keefe Group did not respond to requests for comment.

Departments of Corrections also profit by marking up commissary items. And at least one department — the Georgia Department of Corrections — raised prices, even though their own cost stayed the same, according to a Marshall Project review of the price lists that included the contract and retail price. The department did not respond to requests for comment. The markups are as high as 66% in states like California and Nevada.

Revenue generated by the markups is supposed to be used to benefit people who are incarcerated. But too often, experts said, these funds go toward general operating expenses such as covering maintenance costs, paying staff and operating the commissaries. In Nevada, for example, a 66% markup on commissary goods goes into a welfare fund that the Department of Corrections is supposed to spend on programs that benefit incarcerated people. Some of the money is spent on things like a law library and exercise equipment, but the fund had a $14 million surplus at the end of last year. Nevada Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment.

There is no established oversight of the markups in Nevada, though Shepack is pressing for such legislation. After families and advocates for incarcerated people testified in front of state legislators about the high cost of hygiene items, and feminine hygiene items in particular, the department eliminated markups in April. Advocates in other states, including California and Virginia, are also pushing to eliminate and regulate commissary markups. Lawyers in San Diego filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of people incarcerated in the county jail, asserting that the markup on commissary items amounts to an “illegal tax on inmates and their families.”

Inflation has even driven up underground market prices in some facilities, several incarcerated people told The Marshall Project. Prison hustles are common behind bars as people find ways to make extra money. At Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois, Brian Beals said some men sell things like soap, toilet paper, and food in between commissary visits.

“Overall national inflation has impacted the hustle economy dramatically,” Beals said. “A kitchen worker can get ‘penitentiary rich’ real quick these days because they can charge for more than they used to.”

Rising prices have affected the mood behind bars, too. Price, who is incarcerated in New Jersey State Penitentiary, said he has overheard some of the men he’s incarcerated with joking about exchanging sexual favors for hygiene items. For someone who lacks support, Price said, the jokes reveal a sense of desperation born out of not being able to meet basic needs.

“With the prison ecosystem feeling the effects of society’s inflation, the poor get poorer and then the poor get desperate,” Price wrote. “Illicit activity festers in destitute communities, and the prison population is the poorest of the poor.”

The Latest