Giving Compass' Take:
- Alexandra Arriaga explains how inflation conspires with existing prison structures to drive the cost of necessities up to a point where they are unaffordable for people who are incarcerated.
- What role can you play in protecting people in prison from financial exploitation?
- Read about the atrocities of prison labor programs.
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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.
Read the full article about inflation's impact on people in prison by Alexandra Arriaga at The Marshall Project.