Prison Food and Commissary Services: A Recipe for Disaster
by David M. Reutter
Food plays an integral role in our lives. It not only provides the nutrition necessary to sustain our existence, it feeds the sense of community we all crave. Social bonds are made as we break bread with those who sit and dine with us at the meal table. It may sound trite, but food feeds not just the body but also the soul.
The role of food is more pronounced for prisoners than for those who are not incarcerated. A primary reason for that difference is the fact that prison and jail schedules revolve around meal times. Another is that prisoners are limited to eating the fare provided in the dining hall (commonly called the chow hall or mess hall), or what they can buy from the commissary; they lack the food choices that most people take for granted.
The answer to the question “what’s for chow?” is often determinative of whether a prisoner goes to the dining hall or eats out of his or her own pantry. The latter occurs only if the prisoner has money to buy food items from the commissary or can hustle up something to eat. The poorest prisoners are often content with a “butt naked” ramen noodle soup.
For the uninformed, a butt naked soup contains nothing more than the soup noodles and seasoning pack. Ramen soups are a staple food among prisoners (as well as poor college students), and even serve as a type of currency in prisons and jails.
More elaborate meals can be made using ramen, by mixing it with various other ingredients. What these dishes are called varies with location; in some facilities they’re known as swoles. In Florida they’re called goulash or goulahs.
When not making a goulah, the only other option is to go to the chow hall. As in any institutional setting, there is a serving line that kicks out a tray containing food of dubious quality and sometimes unidentifiable origin. Many years ago, Florida prisons set up barriers to prevent prisoners working in the kitchen from seeing who they served, ending preferential treatment as meals were given out.
When commissary food is prepared as a group meal for a prisoner and his friends, such “spreads” can be very elaborate. As one prisoner put it, “It’s all about taste contrast.” Spreads have been the subject of such books as Prison Ramen, Commissary Kitchen, Cooking in the Big House, The Convict Cookbook, Jailhouse Cookbook: The Prisoner’s Recipe Bible, From the Big House to Your House: Cooking in Prison and The Prison Gourmet. Most often the recipes only include items sold in the prison commissary, but other ingredients are often available from kitchen workers who sell onions, peppers, spices, meat or even sandwiches or pastries they make in the institutional kitchen.
While a single goulah is tailored to the maker’s taste and eaten alone, a spread meets the varied tastes of the group and is part of a communal gathering. Spreads may be made at any time, but are more prevalent around the holidays.
Corrections officials realize that food is a major part of prison and jail operations; it can be used as an incentive for good behavior, to maintain control and to generate profit. Some have the attitude of Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Paul Penzone, who said at the “very bottom” of his list of concerns was “whether or not detainees are happy with the taste of the food they receive.”
Other officials view food differently. “Nutritious and delicious – it sounds like a catchphrase – but at the end of the day, we don’t want to give inmates any reason to have unrest,” stated Daniel Martuscello, deputy commissioner for administrative services for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Services. “If we’re not giving them something that’s palatable and acceptable to them, it can lead to other problems inside the institution.”
A World View of Prison Food
Meals served to prisoners have varied significantly by era and location. In the northeastern part of the United States, for example, prisoners were once served what was considered a poor man’s food: lobster.
“Up until sometime in the 1800s ... lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized,” David Foster Wallace wrote in a 2004 Gourmet essay.
“Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats. One reason for their low status was how plentiful lobsters were in old New England.”
Also, a 1946 menu from the federal prison on Alcatraz Island listed a number of tasty dishes, including roast pork shoulder, beef pot pie Anglaise, baked meat croquettes with Bechamel sauce, potato chowder, fried eggs and spinach with bacon.
Among the world’s prisons, Norway has a reputation for the most humane facilities. At the Bastoy Prison in the Horton municipality, prisoners are served fish balls with white sauce and prawns, chicken con carne and salmon.
In Japan, meals include fried fish, miso soup, rice with barley, daikon radish and noodle salad, while prisoners in India are served pulihora, a tamarind rice dish, for breakfast. Lunch consists of lentil stew with rice and curry. Dinner is tamarind juice soup and rice; goat or chicken curry is served on Sundays. Prisoners in Denmark can prepare their own meals.
Prison food can be much worse in countries where prisoners are treated poorly and their well-being is not seen as a priority.
Andre Barabanov served four years in Russia’s penal system following an anti-Putin protest in 2012. “They didn’t give us porridge in the prison canteen, but an incomprehensible grey mass,” he said. “I had stomach problems and I felt as if they were trying to kill me.”
In Thailand, visitors can deliver food to prisoners; those who are not so lucky must eat the prison fare. “By seven o’clock a bell would ring and prisoners would line up in the mess hall where plates of steamed rice husks had been sitting on the benches for half an hour,” wrote Harry Nicolaides, an Australian who served six months in a Bangkok prison for defaming the Thai monarchy. “Though hungry, I resisted the temptation to try the murky soups, having seen cats vomit after being fed the scraps.”
China, according to U.S. citizen Stuart B. Foster, has a brutal prison system. While serving eight months in a Chinese prison, Foster was forced to assemble Christmas lights all day except during two 10-minute breaks for lunch and dinner. If the prisoners’ work production did not meet quotas, their rations were halved.
“Each meal we were fed rice, turnips, and a little pork fat, which tasted terrible but was enough to sustain life,” Foster wrote in a 2014 online article written for PLN. “A cut in food rations was devastating, and I saw a few prisoners start to look skeletal.”
The worst conditions for prisoners with respect to food are in Africa. In 2008, the United Nations reported that at least 26 prisoners had died due to malnutrition in the city of Mbuji Mayl in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The following year, according to news reports, more than half the 1,300 prisoners at the Chikurubi prison in Zimbabwe died as a result of starvation or disease.
In the United States, the Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to adhere to evolving standards of decency, which means prison conditions are based upon the constantly improving conditions of society in general. Fiscal realities, however, are always at the forefront – particularly when it comes to prison and jail food services.
Food Service Privatization
Correctional facilities are always looking for ways to cut costs. One of the most popular trends in recent decades has been privatization – of prison operations, medical and mental health care, transportation, commissaries and food services. In the latter regard, Aramark Correctional Services and Florida-based Trinity Services Group are the two largest players in the privatized prison and jail food industry. Other companies include Summit (which has acquired correctional food service firms CBM Managed Services and ABL Management), Food Services of America (owned by Services Group of America) and GD Correctional Services, LLC.
Because these companies are mainly concerned about generating profit by lowering costs, both the quality and quantity of food served to prisoners tend to suffer.
“Inmates shared countless grievances about serving sizes as well as the quality, taste, or healthiness of the food,” said University of Arizona School of Sociology doctoral candidate Michael Gibson-Light, who interviewed around 60 prisoners and employees at a men’s facility. “It was common for some to compare their meals to those that they received during previous prison stays, sometimes years or decades prior, which they claimed contained more and better food.”
Over my 30 years of incarceration,* I have watched this phenomenon play out in Florida’s prison system. The meals have never been great; as with most institutional food, it is bland and looks unappealing. Yet by adding a bit of seasoning to most chow hall meals, I could leave satisfied.
“The reality of it is we do institutional cooking, and that’s bland cooking,” said Willie Smith, food service administrator for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. “We don’t season. We don’t cook it like momma used to cook it.”
Regardless, holidays and specialty meals are a big draw. “Thanksgiving, Christmas, hot dogs, anything Fourth of July related,” said Smith. “We have what we call the Big Mac deal. If they come in and for some reason the hamburgers are gone, that’s when they get upset. When those popular meals appear, we feed everyone.”
The most satisfying meal I’ve had in prison was my first Fourth of July. We were served a small slab of ribs, potato salad, baked beans, salad and a quarter of a watermelon. Some regular meals, such as creamed beef for breakfast, cheeseburgers or fried chicken, were highly anticipated meals that drew most prisoners to the chow hall.
In 2001, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) decided to privatize its food services in hopes of saving money. As word spread, prisoners uninformed about the perils of privatization espoused hopes for better food.
The first meal served by Aramark Correctional Services at my prison was appealing to the eyes, generous in portions and appetizing in taste. From that point on, though, things spiraled downhill as profit became the motivating factor instead of food quality, quantity or nutrition.
“We control the menu, we control what ingredients are used, we enforce the calorie amount that has to be present in every meal,” noted Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesman Chris Gautz.
As previously reported in PLN, the MDOC privatized its food services, first with Aramark and then with Trinity Services Group, with unappetizing results. Following repeated problems with unsanitary practices – including maggots found in food serving areas – as well as issues involving food shortages and substitutions, misconduct by private food service staff and protests by prisoners, Michigan officials finally decided to bring kitchen operations back in-house. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.52; Jan. 2018, p. 46; Feb. 2017, p.48; Dec. 2015, p.1].
Similar problems have occurred in other jurisdictions where prison and jail food services have been privatized, including in Florida and Ohio. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.14; Dec. 2006, p.10; March 2003, p.15].
When Aramark was the food service vendor in Florida, it often shorted meals with small portions and missing ingredients. On one occasion when I was assigned as a kitchen worker, an Aramark employee berated me for draining water off the vegetables after they were cooked.
“Water is part of the serving,” the employee said. That would result in prisoners who were unfortunate enough to be served from the bottom of the pan receiving just a few green beans in a scoop of water.
“Prisons are very delicate environments and things like food become incredibly important to people who are incarcerated. It’s a safety issue for other prisoners and corrections officers,” noted Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. “What we’re seeing with Aramark and around food privatization is that it injects chaos into the situation.”
Aramark’s poor food quality and small portions reportedly sparked a 2009 riot at a Kentucky prison that left eight prisoners and eight guards injured. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.10; Oct. 2009, p.36]. According to a subsequent report by Kentucky’s Auditor of Public Accounts, “certain items on the menu were watered down or ... items were routinely missing or cut out of recipes.” Further, “The auditors noted numerous instances in which spices were left out of recipes, and even more serious instances in which flour, beef base, and bulk food ingredients called for in the recipe were dramatically reduced or omitted.”
Florida abandoned prison food privatization in 2009, and Michigan announced it would do likewise in February 2018. Other jurisdictions have also chosen to keep food services in-house, concluding that the savings, if any, are simply not worth it.
The 2009 Kentucky riot at the Northpoint Training Center, in which six buildings were destroyed, resulted in $18 million in repair costs. A September 10, 2016 riot at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan – partly due to the poor quality of food served by Aramark – cost the state $888,320, according to a prison spokesman.
Learning from Privatization
When Aramark ended its contract with Florida in January 2009 and food services reverted to the FDOC, prison officials adopted the company’s cost-cutting practices. Rather than making its kitchen workers corrections officers as it had done previously, the FDOC hired people at minimum wage as non-benefit employees. Under Aramark, the daily cost to feed prisoners was around $2.31 each per day. The FDOC cut that amount to $1.71 per day.
It accomplished that not only by hiring lower-paid workers, but also by serving lower-quality meat and soy products.
Aramark had removed fryers from prison kitchens, eliminating fried food and the cost of grease. It also converted all beef products to turkey. Thus, sloppy Joe was really “sloppy Tom.”
In its eagerness to cut costs, the FDOC went even further. It made virtually every meal soy-based. All of the patties were soy, as were most other “meats.” The only real meat was the weekly chicken quarter. The soy patties have fancy names like Southwestern patty, but to prisoners they are known as “fart patties” due to the severe flatulence they cause. The worst cases of gas came from what prisoners called “Kibbles and Bits,” so named because they were small chunks of textured soy protein that resembled dog food.
Additional cost-cutting came in the form of eliminating virtually all fresh fruit from the menu. The irony is that Florida is one of the nation’s largest producers of fruit, with the state itself owning thousands of acres of citrus orchards.
On several occasions, the inferior food led prisoners at the Cross City Correctional Institution to boycott the chow hall. Those incidents compelled prison officials to improve the meals, and they eventually abandoned the Kibbles and Bits due to the boycotts and because prisoners were regularly choosing the alternative meal option: beans. Plus, as many prisoners were suffering intestinal ailments after soy became the main course in most prison meals, increased medical costs may have been a contributing factor.
There are some things that private food service companies can do that most corrections agencies can’t, or won’t, though.
Aramark’s iCare and 811marketplace.com offer specialty food items that family members can purchase for prisoners at certain facilities. They can order pizzas, burgers, Philly steaks, hotdogs, onion rings, hot wings and more – but must pay exorbitant prices. A Double Angus Cheeseburger with A1 sauce is $15.49 through iCare, and an eight-inch cheese pizza is $12.39. At 811marketplace.com, which services the Norfolk County Jail in Virginia, a hamburger, two slices of pizza or a Philly steak, with drink included, costs $9.00 each plus a $2.00 processing fee. The food is ordered online and delivered to prisoners on a scheduled date.
The Cook County jail in Chicago has a similar program in which prisoners can order pizzas for $5 to $7 each, and have them delivered to their cells. According to May 2017 news reports, the pizzas are made by prisoner workers enrolled in a culinary program taught by Chef Bruno Abate, who is a member of Recipe for Change – a non-profit that works with prisoners at the jail and gives them an “introduction to healthy food, good nutrition and the art of quality cooking.” The most popular jail pizza is one topped with sausage.
The Kosher Effect
Thanks to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), many jails and prisons have been forced to provide prisoners with religious dietary options, including halal meals (for Muslims) and kosher meals (for Jewish prisoners and sometimes Muslims, too). Corrections officials have done so unwillingly in some cases.
When the U.S. Department of Justice dragged Florida into federal court to force it to provide Jewish prisoners with kosher meals, the FDOC mounted a vigorous challenge. Costs, state prison officials argued, would be over $3 a day per prisoner – or about $12.1 million a year. The district court, however, calculated the cost at $3 million, which was a fraction of the FDOC’s $2.2 billion total budget. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.59; May 2014, p.14].
The California Institution for Men in Chino has seen a huge shift from having to serve kosher meals after a federal court decreed they must be made available. The food budget for such meals jumped from $52,000 in 2016 to $143,000 in 2017.
“The state [overall] has spent an additional $2 million to $3 million feeding kosher,” declared Willie Harris, the food manager at the facility. To cut down on that, prison officials remove prisoners from the kosher meal program if they consume non-kosher food. Harris found that “80 percent of the inmates that were on that kosher list have purchased some type of pork product from the canteen.”
However, prison officials often ignore the fact that prisoners purchase food items from the commissary to barter or trade with other prisoners, not to eat themselves.
While many prisoners request kosher meals due to their sincere religious beliefs, others seek them out because they are considered more nutritious, better tasting or at least different from the standard, monotonous prison fare.
Since kosher meals cost more, within the past year Florida officials have tried to entice prisoners to abandon the kosher diet program by upgrading the master menu. The current menu now includes roast beef, chicken nuggets, breakfast burritos, real beef patties and even ice cream bars. The effect was exactly what the FDOC had hoped: Many prisoners receiving kosher meals returned to the master menu. It seems that prison officials figured out if they spend a bit more on the regular menu, they could spend a lot less on kosher food.
Litigation, mainly under RLUIPA, has spurred corrections officials to provide kosher dietary options, including in Nevada, which settled a class-action suit in August 2012, and in Texas, Indiana and Idaho. Maryland agreed to serve kosher meals in 2009 after a meeting between the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and representatives from the Jewish community. [See: PLN, March 2018, p.56; April 2018, pp.40,48; Sept. 2009, p.44]. And in October 2017, Michigan prisoners sought class-action status in a federal lawsuit to require prison officials to provide kosher meals. See: Ackerman v. Washington, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 4:13-cv-14137-LVP-MKM.
Most recently, on July 5, 2018, a federal district court in South Dakota held a former prisoner’s suit could proceed on claims that he was denied kosher food. While James Irving Dale was incarcerated between 2002 and 2017, he claimed that the prison’s private food contractor, CBM Correctional Food Services, served meals containing rice cooked with pork flavoring and byproducts, that the kitchen was not certified by a rabbi and that kitchen workers indicated they had contaminated his food with utensils used to cut pork.
The district court wrote that “It is settled law in the Eighth Circuit that a kosher diet must be provided in a prison setting,” and, “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court concludes that there were numerous instances in which Kashrut [Jewish dietary] practices were not followed in the preparation and serving of food that Mr. Dale would have eaten.”
Although Dale has been released from prison, rendering his claims for injunctive relief moot, he also sought monetary damages, which allowed his lawsuit to proceed. The case has been set for trial on September 18, 2018. See: Dale v. Dooley, U.S.D.C. (D. SD), Case No. 4:14-cv-04003-LLP.
Not all prisons and jails offer a halal or kosher option, but rather provide vegetarian alternatives or serve “common fare” meals that meet the dietary requirements of a number of religions.
The Commissary Alternative
In some jurisdictions, the company that supplies prison food services has a disincentive to serve meals that draw prisoners to the chow hall. That’s because the vendor not only provides meals but also manages the commissary or canteen store. When the same firm controls both operations, it’s like hitting the prison contract lottery.
Such is the case with Trinity Services Group, owned by TKC Holdings – a company that also owns Keefe Group, which operates prison and jail commissaries. TKC, in turn, is indirectly controlled by H.I.G. Capital, LLC, a private equity firm.
“There’s almost no incentive to serve good food,” noted Ronald Zullo, an associate research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute, upon learning that Trinity managed both food and commissary services in Michigan state prisons until earlier this year. “If you deter people from the chow hall and have them buy food [from the commissary], that would, from Trinity’s perspective, be the most profitable.”
Other private companies that provide both food and commissary services include Aramark, TIGG’s Canteen Services, Summit and Tiger Correctional Services. Several other firms, such as Kimble’s Commissary Services and McDaniel Supply Company, only provide commissary services – mainly at local jails.
The meals served in prisons and jails are sometimes so unpalatable that prisoners avoid going to the chow hall altogether, instead relying on commissary purchases.
“I don’t eat that prison food,” said one South Carolina prisoner. “The guys on what they call lock up, they’re the ones who mostly fall victim to that. Me, personally, I would have to be rock bottom with no chance at all to eat that.”
South Carolina canteen manager Eddie Huddle said prisoners who can afford to do so opt out of the chow hall meals and purchase their food from the commissary. “I can’t tell you what percentage but I can tell you there’s a lot of [that],” he observed.
Commissaries are big business. One example can be found in the FDOC’s contract with Trinity; in exchange for the privilege of providing commissary operations, the company pays the state $1.165 per day for each of its nearly 100,000 prisoners – or over $36 million annually.
Accordingly to a 2014 contract proposal posted on West Virginia’s website, Keefe Commissary Network and its affiliate, Access Securepak, reported gross sales of over $375 million for care package, commissary and technology programs in 2012, with net profit of $41 million – or a 10.9 percent profit margin.
The Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) conducted a survey of state prison systems in 2013, and of the 34 that responded, 12 had privatized some or all of their commissary operations. Twenty-eight states reported combined annual commissary revenue of $517 million with net profit of over $57 million.
When Trinity’s parent company, H.I.G. Capital, announced it was acquiring Keefe Group in May 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative – a non-profit criminal justice research and advocacy organization – estimated based on the ASCA data that Trinity could reap annual revenues totaling $875 million after buying Keefe.
The Company Store
Exercising the option to mainly eat commissary food is expensive. Commissary prices are typically higher than what people pay outside of prison for the same items; some facilities have policies that limit the mark-up amounts, while others don’t. Corrections officials justify the prices by noting they are similar to those at convenience stores – which often charge more due to the “convenience” factor, which is lacking in prisons and jails where prisoners have no other options. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.25].
Higher commissary prices are compounded by low prison wages. The Prison Policy Initiative released a report in April 2017 that examined how much prisoners earn in each state prison system, both in regular institutional jobs and prison industry programs. For regular jobs, the average wage ranged from $0.14 to $0.63 per hour. Thus, high commissary prices consume a large amount of prisoners’ income. In some states, including Alabama, Texas and Georgia, prisoners receive no pay for their work.
To supplement their paltry wages, prisoners often receive money from family members and friends, which is put on their prison or jail trust accounts.
“We’re not rich,” said Lisa Moore, who has sent thousands of dollars to her son in a Mississippi prison to buy commissary items. “We work hard, but I see so many people who don’t have anything to take to their loved ones.” She added, “I work an extra job, just to take care of it.”
The most popular item in prison and jail commissaries, ramen noodle soup, is often sold at inflated prices. Trinity charges Florida prisoners $0.70 for a standard 3-ounce package of ramen. Union Supply Group, a California prison package service, sells the same soup to Tennessee prisoners for $0.45 each. By contrast, ramen packages are available in most grocery stores at a cost ranging from $0.10 to $0.25.
Honey buns are another very popular item. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.24]. An iced honey bun you can buy at the corner store for $0.70 is sold in Florida prison commissaries for $1.59, while a two-pack of AA batteries that discount stores sell for $1.80 costs $3.02 in the commissary.
This is reminiscent of a scene in The Grapes of Wrath, the 1939 Pulitzer-winning novel by John Steinbeck, when a family travels to California during the Great Depression to look for work. When they obtain a job picking peaches, the mother goes to the company store – owned and operated by the farming operation – to buy food for their dinner. She finds everything is overpriced but there are no other options if they want to eat. Thus, they have to use their meager wages to purchase food from the company store at inflated prices.
Such is the nature of prison and jail commissaries.
“You’ve got a very high cost of doing business,” countered Jim Theiss, CEO of the Centric Group LLC, Keefe’s former parent company. “I can assure you, we believe in providing value.”
That value depends largely on location. Through Access Securepak, Trinity sells food packages for prisoners. The Florida Fall/Winter 2016 catalog listed eight packs of cheese on cheese crackers for $3.90. That same item was sold to Georgia prisoners for $3.25 in the Fall 2016 catalog. A five-ounce Vienna sausage package was offered to Florida prisoners for $2.40, while Georgia prisoners could purchase that item for $2.00. Union Supply Group engages in such disparate pricing, too; for example, it offered a four-ounce bag of Folgers Instant Coffee to both Florida and Tennessee prisoners in the winter of 2016. The former had to pay $4.95 per bag, while the latter were charged only $2.55.
Inflated commissary and package prices are directly connected to the kickbacks that corrections agencies receive in exchange for awarding companies monopoly contracts. For food packages, the FDOC receives 20 percent of Trinity’s gross sales, while Union Supply Group kicks back 15 percent of its gross sales.
Prison Policy Initiative Report
The Prison Policy Initiative released a detailed report on commissaries in May 2018, noting that they “present yet another opportunity for prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families, often enriching private companies in the process.”
The report examined data from Illinois and Washington, where the state DOCs operate prison commissaries, and from Massachusetts, where Keefe is the prison system’s private commissary vendor.
According to the study, prisoners in Illinois and Massachusetts spent an average of $1,121 and $1,207 per year on commissary purchases, respectively, while those in Washington spent an average of $513 annually. The disparity for Washington may be partly due to a state law, RCW 72.09.480, that makes any money sent to prisoners’ trust accounts subject to 25 percent deductions for victims’ compensation and cost-of-incarceration, plus another 10 percent for mandatory savings, 20 percent for outstanding legal financial obligations and 20 percent for any child support orders. As a result of these deductions, less money is available to Washington state prisoners for commissary purchases.
In a call with PLN, Prison Policy Initiative executive director Peter Wagner also mentioned that Washington prisoners appear to receive a significant amount of commissary items through quarterly packages ordered by family members from Union Supply Group. The packages, which are not counted in commissary sales data, may be favored by prisoners’ families as a way to avoid the DOC’s trust account deductions.
An analysis of commissary sales in the three states examined in the report found that prepared and snack foods made up the bulk of purchases, followed by beverages and hygiene products. The study noted the emphasis on foodstuffs was not surprising, since “prison and jail cafeterias are notorious for serving small portions of unappealing food.”
It also questioned whether prisoners should be forced to buy commissary items due to inadequate meals served in the chow hall and insufficient hygiene products provided by prison officials. “If people in prison are resorting to the commissary to buy essential goods, like food and hygiene products, does it really make sense to charge a day’s prison wages (or more) for one of these goods? Should states knowingly force the families of incarcerated people to pay for essential goods their loved ones can’t afford, often racking up exorbitant money transfer fees in the process?”
Total commissary revenue in the three states included $11.7 million in Massachusetts (for the one-year period ending in June 2016), $48.4 million in Illinois (for one year ending in September 2017) and $8.69 million in Washington (for one year ending in October 2017).
With respect to pricing of prison commissary items, the Prison Policy Initiative wrote that “One rather surprising finding is that prices for some common items were lower than prices found at traditional free-world retailers. Other commissary prices were higher, but only by a little bit.”
Then again, the report had a limited data sample from just three state prison systems and no local jails, and apparently didn’t do much in the way of comparison shopping with respect to free-world costs. For example, the study cited local retail prices for ramen soup ranging from $0.40 to $0.89 each, though ramen typically sells for much less at grocery stores.
In regard to public operation of prison commissaries versus privatization, the Prison Policy Initiative found that “even in state-operated commissary systems, private commissary contractors are positioned to profit, blurring the line between state and private control.”
“Of the three states we examined, only Massachusetts has a contractor-operated commissary system. It also has the highest per-person average commissary spending. It is tempting to conclude that the profit motive of commissary contractors leads to higher mark-ups and thus higher per capita spending, but we would need a larger sample size to test this hypothesis,” the report said.
It also noted that in Illinois’ DOC-operated commissary system, items sold to prisoners were purchased from private vendors – the largest being Keefe, “which accounted for 30% of the commissary’s spending.” Thus, the report observed, “it appears that Keefe is positioned to make money even in states that have not privatized the operation of their prison commissaries.”
“In the long term, when incarcerated people can’t afford goods and services vital to their well-being, society pays the price. In the short term, however, these costs are falling on families, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately come from communities of color,” the Prison Policy Initiative study concluded. “If the cost of food and soap is too much for states to bear, they should find ways to reduce the number of people in prison, rather than nickel-and-diming incarcerated people and their families.”
Protesting Price Gouging
Challenges to high prison and jail commissary prices are rarely successful, but that does not stop prisoners and their advocates from trying.
In New Jersey, a prisoner at the Monmouth County Jail, Donell Freeman, 41, filed suit over price gouging at the facility’s commissary, which is run by Keefe Commissary Network. Freeman claimed the high cost of commissary items violated anti-trust laws and constituted cruel and unusual punishment due to the “discriminating prices.” The county receives a 45 percent commission from Keefe on commissary sales, plus there is a 10 percent fee that goes to a crime victims fund. In 2016, the county received over $350,000 in commission payments. One package of ramen soup costs $1.10 at the jail.
Freeman’s lawsuit was dismissed in May 2017, just one month after it was filed, for failure to comply with in forma pauperis requirements. Ironically, he had been jailed for robbing an A&P grocery store. See: Freeman v. Monmouth County Correctional Institution Commissary, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 3:17-cv-02713-BRM-TJB.
In March 2010, a California federal district court dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by eight prisoners who alleged the state prison system unfairly raised commissary prices to make up for revenue lost in an earlier suit.
In 2003, several California prisoners had sued prison officials because they were not receiving the interest earned on their trust accounts; instead, the interest was deposited into the Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF). As a result of that case, prisoner funds were no longer placed into interest-bearing accounts. See: Schneider v. Cal. Dept. of Corr., 345 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2003).
Because the IWF relied in part on funds generated by interest earned on the trust accounts, it lost revenue. In order to make up that shortfall, prisoners argued that commissary prices were unfairly and unlawfully increased.
The class-action suit claimed the sudden price increases violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment and constituted “price gouging” under California law.
The district court dismissed the case, noting that prisoners are not forced to buy anything from prison commissaries, and thus no takings clause violation occurred.
And in dismissing the prisoners’ price gouging claim, the court found that 1) there is no constitutional right to purchase anything from the commissary other than the necessities of life, 2) prisoners were aware of the prices and authorized the expenditure of funds from their accounts when they made commissary purchases, and 3) there was no evidence that the prices were unfair or unlawful. The dismissal of the case was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 13, 2011. See: Godoy v. Horel, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:09-cv-04793-PJH.
Beyond litigation, prisoners and their advocates have also protested high commissary prices through boycotts and demonstrations.
In early July 2017, a group of women incarcerated at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville collectively boycotted commissary purchases. The organized action began after the Arizona Department of Corrections hiked prices on various commissary items provided by Keefe Commissary Network, ranging from tampons and shoelaces to granola bars and soap.
The prisoners released a statement expressing their frustration over the increased prices. “We get one roll of toilet paper per week and 12 pads a month. Everything else comes out of our pockets, including [non-cafeteria] food. We make between $0.10-$0.45 an hour. 20 percent of our wages go to restitution and we get charged $2 a month for electricity,” they wrote. “With so little, we already struggle to make ends meet – often being left to choose between buying a bar of soap, which is now $1.50, or making a phone call home at $0.20 a minute. Now we’re expected to pay 70 percent more for staple items, like peanut butter.” During the boycott, prisoners bought only a single $0.06 toothbrush.
The Arizona Department of Corrections receives a 16 percent commission kickback from Keefe, which generated $6.3 million in 2016. A prison spokesman noted that only 268 commissary items out of 1,000 had increased in price, while another 222 decreased.
On January 16, 2018, prisoners’ rights supporters protested outside several Florida prisons and the FDOC’s central office in Tallahassee, in part due to price-gouging in prison canteens.
“Can someone talk to us about why tampons cost $18?” one demonstrator asked.
The protest action, which resulted in at least one arrest, coincided with a planned non-violent “laydown” by prisoners that included refusal to work and a boycott of canteen purchases as a form of non-participation. The laydown was supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a project of Industrial Workers of the World.
The previous month, Operation PUSH – an effort by Florida prisoners and their advocates to end prison slave labor and exploitive commissary prices, and to fully reestablish parole – posted a statement that read, in part, “[O]ne case of soup on the street cost $4. It costs us $17 on the inside. This is highway robbery without a gun. It’s not just us that they’re taking from. It’s our families who struggle to make ends meet and send us money – they are the real victims that the state of Florida is taking advantage of.”
The Culture of Prison Cuisine
When it comes to prison meals, the bottom line is that they are one of the most anticipated events in correctional facilities because there is little else to look forward to – and because prison schedules are designed to accommodate thrice-daily meal times (or twice a day on weekends at some facilities). While chow hall dishes sometimes have appealing names, such as Turkey Tetrazzini or Western Chili, the reality is that most prison food is bland, under- or over-cooked and unappetizing. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.1].
As a result, prisoners create elaborate recipes to make their own tasty meals. The best combine both commissary items and food from the chow hall. Onions, tomatoes, peppers and seasonings are popular items sold by kitchen workers.
“In most cases, if you’re lucky enough to know somebody that works in the kitchen, they can bring you back some raw onions, maybe some chives, some jalapenos, fresh vegetables,” said former prisoner Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez, who co-authored Prison Ramen: Recipes and Stories from Behind Bars. “And then there’s times when you don’t have much but tap water, a bag of Cheetos – Flamin’ Hot Cheetos at that – and a couple of soups. And you know what? You make a little tamale.”
Prisoners also frequently take food from the chow hall back to their cells, in violation of prison rules. “You’ll sneak back bits of beef stroganoff and wash it off, mix it in with your ramen and create a different dish,” Alvarez stated.
While some prisons and jails have microwaves available in housing areas, others do not. Most facilities provide access to hot water, though, so prisoners can make soup and coffee, and warm other food items.
“You put your noodles in this [bowl], add hot water, put the lid on, and then take it to your bunk and cover it with bedding and a pillow to hold in the heat,” an ex-prisoner wrote on WikiHow.com. “This method is usually pretty effective, and after 10 minutes or so you have your ramen.”
Bread is a commodity not always sold or available in commissaries, so prisoners make “soup sandwiches.” This involves opening one end of a ramen noodle pack and filling it with hot water for about a minute. Once the water is drained off, the block of ramen, which is partly cooked but still firm, is split into two flat pieces and filled with mackerel, tuna, pork rinds or chips and condiments as desired.
Larger “spreads” may contain ramen or chips as a base plus pickles, eggs, summer sausage, Slim Jims or virtually anything to add taste. Improvised tamales, burritos, pizzas and even cakes are possible. For example, a jail-house recipe for “sweet and sour pork” includes pork rinds, cherry Kool-Aid mix, V8 or tomato juice, ketchup, sugar and (where available) soy sauce.
Prisoners are not just innovative when it comes to concocting recipes from food available in the commissary and chow hall; they also can be entrepreneurial. When Seth Sundberg was serving time in California, he avoided eating meat in the chow hall that was delivered to the kitchen in boxes stamped “not for human consumption,” and developed a granola bar using oatmeal, honey, trail mix and peanut butter.
Finding that other prisoners were willing to buy them, upon his release he started a company to make organic, gluten-free energy bars under the name Prison Bars. [See: PLN, Aug. 2016, p.17]. His business has since expanded, and is now branded as Inside-Out Bars (www.insideoutbar.com), offering such flavors as cranberry almond and peanut butter choco chip.
Eating in prison has a larger purpose than simply being a means of nourishment or even having something appetizing to take the edge off the drudgery of life behind bars.
“Cooking meals in prison isn’t really about taste,” explained performance artist Karla Davis, who conducts demonstrations on how to prepare prison food. “It’s a reminder of humanity, community, and the person you were on the outside.”
Sitting down to a spread can be a sharing experience that helps prisoners remember there is power in bringing people together. While at the California Institution for Men in August 2009, Alvarez experienced race riots. “There were inmates being stabbed, people getting beaten, buildings going up in flames. People were carrying around swords made out of broken windows,” he recalled.
Then, he saw something that caused him to change his life and way of thinking. He saw some older gang members calm down younger prisoners and begin feeding soup to freezing prisoners who were not being let back into the housing units by guards.
Alvarez told others in his unit, “Gather up whatever food you have, and let’s feed these guys.” It was then he realized, “I was having a meal with my so-called enemies, but after speaking with them, it was obvious that they were my brothers.”
The carceral experience can be traumatic, both physically and emotionally, and food can make an enormous difference.
“I was making chicken soup – it took me back to that ordeal [during the riot],” said Alvarez. “I felt how I felt at the time – I was on my own, becoming a man, but in prison. It was an eerie feeling – that little warm soup brought me some comfort. There is still something I can have and feel at home, even though I’m not.”
Sources: Daily Republic, www.spoonuniversity.com, Seattle Times, Statesman Journal, The Republic, Clarion-Ledger, Baltimore Sun, www.prisonpolicy.org, www.stltoday.com, Munchies, The Atlantic, www.firstwefeast.com, www.npr.org, www.bbc.com, Detroit Free Press, Colorado Springs Independent, www.laweekly.com, www.postandcourier.com, www.9news.com, The Marshall Project, www.tkcholdings.com, www.rapidcityjournal.com, www.politifact.com, https://fighttoxicprisons.wordpress.com, Phoenix New Times, www.wtxl.com, www.xojane.com, www.vice.com, Chicago Tribune
* The author is incarcerated in a Florida state prison.
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