The prices incarcerated people pay for toiletries, over-the-counter medication, food, and other essential goods not provided by the state recently shot up by a staggering amount, even by the standards of soaring inflation in the outside world.
The cost of products sold in Pennsylvania state prison commissaries increased 26.7 percent this year, a new Prison Society analysis has found. By comparison, a report issued earlier this week by the federal government found that prices have increased in the greater economy by 7.1 percent in the past year. The disparity is compounded by the fact that while wages have risen in the world outside, the paltry earnings incarcerated people receive for prison labor have remained flat.
The DOC says that the steep price hike is the unavoidable consequence of inflation, shortages of certain goods, and snags in the supply chain that have plagued the economy since the pandemic. A spokesperson also notes that the DOC has not raised prices since 2018, and during the pandemic took “a loss on the sale of certain items” to keep the prices down.
But questions have been raised about how correctional systems and their corporate suppliers may profit from commissary sales and take advantage of the captive market behind bars. In Pennsylvania’s state prisons, incarcerated people feel that the DOC could do more to ease the shock of the massive price increases.
Price hike creates new hardships for incarcerated people
When the DOC announced the price increases in October, we began receiving a flurry of letters from incarcerated people who were now struggling to afford the bare necessities. “I have to work in the kitchen [for] 3 days to make enough to buy [toothpaste],” one man wrote. It now costs $6.62 for a 6-ounce tube of Colgate Sensitive toothpaste, a nearly 70 percent increase over the old price.
It’s not just toothpaste that’s becoming out of reach. Our analysis of the price adjustments the DOC published in a memo to incarcerated people finds that the cost of commissary products outpaced inflation across a wide range of categories. The chart below compares the rate of the price increases in the DOC commissary to the annual inflation rates for several major expense categories, as published in this month’s Consumer Price Index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
We should note that a one-to-one comparison between the rates we calculated for the DOC increases and the CPI is not possible, as the government’s figure gives more weight to certain goods over others based on how important they are to consumers. Yet it illustrates just how drastic the rise in commissary prices has been, even amid soaring inflation in the economy as a whole. The tube of toothpaste that now goes for $6.62 behind bars sells for $4.99 at Target.
“A lot of the cost increases were on products that are most frequently used or purchased,” one man in SCI Phoenix wrote. This forces incarcerated people to “make necessary sacrifices.”
The DOC doesn’t remember when it last raised prison wages
Meanwhile, people in DOC custody are still making the same meager wages working prison jobs. Base wages range from $0.19 to $0.42 per hour for most jobs. In the wake of the DOC’s decision to raise commissary prices, incarcerated people have written to the Prison Society asking for help to petition the DOC to boost wages to compensate for inflation. Several said that the wages had not increased since at least the 1990s. According to the DOC spokesperson, “It is unclear when the last across-the-board pay increase occurred.” When asked whether the department was planning to raise wages to account for inflation, the spokesperson gave a noncommittal answer, saying it was “reviewing current inmate wages and will make recommendations within budgetary limits for any increases.”
In addition to clothing, toiletries, medications and other necessities, people in DOC custody must also stretch their money to cover medical visits and phone calls, emails, and letters home. Paying for supplemental food also becomes a necessity when the quality and portion sizes of prison meals are lacking. As the DOC began delivering meals to people’s cells during the pandemic and food quality declined, three-quarters of incarcerated people who responded to a Prison Society survey reported spending more money on food at the commissary.
Calls to do more
Besides raising wages, people in custody want the DOC to do more to make the cost of living behind bars affordable. “Even an increase in portion size on the servings of the meals would help,” one wrote. Others are skeptical of the DOC’s claim that economic forces beyond its control are solely to blame.
They have good reason to be doubtful. One of the DOC’s commissary suppliers, the Keefe Group, has been under scrutiny for its operations in Nevada prisons, where a state audit found that it marked up commissary products by up to 40 percent. The DOC contracts with multiple companies to supply its commissaries, which it says helps prevent such markups.
Nevertheless, prices in Pennsylvania prisons have shot sky-high, and incarcerated people have little choice but to pay them. Wrote one person in DOC custody, “The sad part is people will still buy [commissary] because they have been down for years [and] they lost the will to fight.”