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Florida Fleeces Prisoners with High Canteen Prices

by Kevin W. Bliss

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) has expanded the use of private contractors in the state’s prison system. With an annual budget of about $2.4 billion, the FDOC is increasingly shifting the burden of those costs to prisoners and their families through privatization.

Revenue from canteen (commissary) sales alone increased $4 million after the FDOC switched to a new vendor, Trinity Services Group. Net revenue payable to the state has reached $35 million a year due to the monopoly nature of the FDOC’s canteen services. Trinity has one of the largest revenue-generating contracts in the state’s prison system. 

Critics have claimed on several occasions that the FDOC was guilty of price-gouging. Jackie Azis, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said, “That’s not surprising at all to hear, and that’s something I’ve heard throughout my career.”

For example, a case of 54 Tampax at Walmart costs $5.86, while the same number of Tampax at the Lowell CI women’s prison costs $21.71. At the same Walmart, 12 ramen soups cost $1.94. In FDOC canteens, at $.65 per ramen soup packet, 12 would cost $7.80. 

Even within the prison system there are price disparities between the same items sold to prisoners and guards. The Times-Union reported on price comparisons at six facilities between the prisoner and visiting park canteens and the staff canteen. The newspaper reported only about a dozen of the items were comparably priced, mainly snack foods. Otherwise, items like bottled water cost $0.43 at staff canteens and $1.02 for prisoners. Chips were $0.57 for staff and $1.03 in prisoner canteens, while honeybuns cost $.89 each for staff and $1.62 for prisoners.

“Staff canteen allows officers and staff to purchase affordable items while working their shifts,” stated FDOC communications director Michelle Glady. 

Notably, staff canteens are not operated by a private contractor – which may help explain the pricing differences. They also offer prison employees various services provided by prisoners at low prices, such as $10 car washes and waxes, $3 haircuts and $1 shoe shines.

A portion of the prison canteen revenue generated by Trinity Services Group goes to the FDOC’s general fund, and Wendy Sawyer, a researcher for the Prison Policy Initiative, said it was offensive that prison staff pay less while prisoners and their families – those who can least afford it – are charged more. Florida prisoners receive no pay for their prison job assignments, which makes the inflated canteen prices even more egregious. 



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