Costs of incarceration rise as inflation squeezes inmates, familiesOctober 16, 2022
Across the nation, prison commissaries are raising prices on items that many consider basic necessities — from deodorant to fresh fruit — not provided by the state department of corrections. The markups come as decades-high inflation is also squeezing inmates’ families, making it harder for them to help.
It’s a burden that families shouldn’t have to shoulder, advocates say, and a situation that some worry will lead to unrest or violence.
Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank focused on policies in the criminal justice and legal system, said that by forcing prisoners and their families to buy many essential items in the prison commissary instead of providing them for free, prisons are shifting the costs of incarceration onto them and their loved ones.
“The prison and jail system always has the power to play hardball with the provider to get prices down in order to make items more affordable for the consumers but a prison system that’s already content with foisting the costs of things like over-the-counter medication onto incarcerated people probably is not going to work very hard to do that,” she said.
Jodi Hocking, the founder and executive director of the Nevada prisoner advocacy group Return Strong, said the strain is hard on the families.
“We have families that cross all different socioeconomic lines,” said Hocking, whose husband is incarcerated, “but a lot of families, once your loved one goes to prison, you’ve now lost your second income and you’re now dealing with kids on your own.”
Low wages, high prices
Inflation is, of course, only part of the problem.
Shannon Ross, a former inmate and now executive director of The Community, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit focused on decarceration and reentry, said the biggest issue with the price of commissary items in Wisconsin prisons is that prisoners have such low incomes.
Wages for inmates are well below the federal minimum wage. According to a 2022 ACLU report, inmates in state prisons are paid on average between 13 cents and 52 cents per hour for a “non-industry job,” such as janitorial work or maintenance and repairs, which make up the majority of prison jobs. In Wisconsin, for non-industry jobs, the pay was between 12 and 42 cents per hour.
José Colón, who is at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York for a murder committed when he was a teenager, makes about $7 every two weeks as a clerk in the education department at Sing Sing, which he told States Newsroom is one of the better-paying programs for prisoners.
Sing Sing raised the limit on the amount prisoners could spend in the commissary to account for the higher prices but that doesn’t help if money is still hard to come by.
“You go into the commissary one week and it will be a certain price and then the following week, the price goes up a little bit, whereas it might only go up 25 or 50…