Recent reports in the Texas media have focused attention on the state’s prison commissaries. However, none have presented the point of view of prisoners or their families. Instead, such reports tend to interview members of victims rights groups and ask them what they think about prisoners being allowed to purchase “luxury” items such as snacks and sodas. The reaction is predictably negative, but apparently that is what passes for objective news reporting in the mainstream Texas press.
One member of Mothers of Murdered Children said that the money put into prisoners’ trust fund accounts by their families should be given to the “relatives of victims.” This viewpoint assumes that most prisoners are incarcerated for murder or other violent crimes. In fact, many prisoners are serving time for offenses such as drug use, sale or possession, which do not have easily definable “victims.”
The truth about prison commissaries in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is that they save the state a lot of money. The TDCJ is required to supply indigent prisoners with basic necessities such as tooth powder, stamps, envelopes and stationery. About half of the TDCJ’s 160,000 prisoners are classified as indigent – having less than $5.00 in their trust fund accounts.
The other half must purchase their correspondence materials, toothpaste and other hygiene products from prison commissaries. In 2009, Texas prisoners bought 13 million stamps and pre-stamped envelopes, at a cost of over $6 million.
The commissaries also generate considerable profit for the TDCJ, as most of the commissary items have a hefty markup. For example, instant Ramen noodle soup, the most popular item sold, carries a 44% markup from a wholesale price of $.14 each to a retail price of $.25 each. This means that the prison system makes almost $3.7 million off the $8.3 million in Ramen noodle soup sold annually. Markups average around one-third of the retail price, meaning that TDCJ commissaries made a profit of about $30 million in 2009 on gross sales of $94.9 million.
Although commissary profits are mainly used for recreational and educational materials for prisoners, during the 2009 fiscal year the TDCJ recommended diverting $7 million from commissary sales to help meet a budget deficit.
A common assumption about prison commissaries is that prisoners mostly buy junk food and, further, they shouldn’t have to purchase snacks because the prison system provides sufficient meals. Both of those assumptions are misleading.
Texas prisoners do buy a lot of junk food such as chips and soda – $17.6 million and $15.9 million worth in 2009, respectively. They also spent $3.8 million on ice cream, $3.2 million on candy and $5.7 million on cookies and pies. Why? Most likely for the same reasons that people not in prison buy comfort food or junk food. But there is also another reason.
How much did Texas prisoners spend on vegetables and fruit? Zero. Nothing. That isn’t because all prisoners in Texas hate fruits and vegetables; rather it is because the commissaries don’t stock them. Despite multiple petitions by prisoners over the years, TDCJ commissaries continue to primarily stock junk food. Perhaps that is because such items are the most profitable. Whatever the motivation, Texas prisoners don’t have the option of patronizing other stores and it is clear that TDCJ commissaries, which are owned and operated by the prison system, care neither about what prisoners want nor what is healthy for them.
“It was never designed as a supplemental food program,” said TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons, referring to prison commissaries.
“The food is there, but it is an institutionally-prepared meal, so it’s probably not going to be as tasty as a bag of chips,” noted Nolan Glass, TDCJ’s commissary director.
Both statements assume that the food served in prison “chow halls” is adequate. Many prisoners and prison experts disagree with that assumption. Complicating the matter is the fact that Texas prisoners, who are required to work without pay if medically able, perform a variety of tasks ranging from toiling all day in agricultural fields to sitting at a desk working as a clerk. That means they have vastly differing caloric requirements, yet all who are housed at the same prison are fed the same meals.
“It’s a fact that TDCJ feeds the inmates kind of minimally, and they are supplementing their diets” by buying commissary food, said Scott Henson, a criminal justice policy researcher and author of the acclaimed Texas criminal justice blog “Grits for Breakfast.”
The fact that the highest volume item in TDCJ commissaries by far is Ramen noodle soup supports Henson’s observation. Ramen noodles are an item purchased less as junk food and more to supplement a possibly inadequate diet.
Institutional meals can be deficient for a number of reasons. They can also be unpalatable, which may account for the $5.7 million in condiments purchased by prisoners at TDCJ commissaries in 2009. This writer has personally experienced prison food where the identity of what is being served could only be inferred from its color, as everything on the tray had been boiled more than a day earlier, rendering every item a tasteless, but not colorless, mush. Also within this writer’s realm of experience are chow halls that, having prepared an inadequate amount of food, water down servings or dole out half portions. Further, it is not uncommon for kitchen employees and workers to arbitrarily refuse to serve full portions of food.
All of these practices result in a need for prisoners to supplement their diet – a need that is poorly met by prison commissaries that focus on low-nutrition but highly profitable junk food. Perhaps it is time for the TDCJ to rethink the mission of its commissaries and the type of food items they stock.
Sources: Texas Tribune, TDCJ, KTRK-AM, http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com
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