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.
Sources: jacksonville.com, tampabay.com, dc.state.fl.us
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