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Commissary and Food Service Privatization Strands Florida Prisoners in ‘Food Desert’

by David M. Reutter

Much has been made of the “food desert” where America’s poorest citizens live: inner-city ghettos and rural backwaters where no grocery store is found, forcing impoverished residents—most lacking a car—to shop for food in high-priced and poorly-stocked gas stations and convenience stores.

But prisons also house some of America’s poorest citizens, and they are also forced to shop for food in commissaries that are high-priced and poorly-stocked—especially those run by private contractors, who are many layers of bureaucracy removed from any need to respond to complaints from their “customers.”

The profiteers and politicians who advocate for privatization of prison services always tout this shift in responsibility as a way to save taxpayer money while also improving services through use of professional specialists. In reality, prison commissary and food services represent a cash cow, so states and localities shift onto prisoners and their families some of the expense of their incarceration while also rewarding for-profit companies contracted for these services with handsome profits.

Of course, every prison system is different. This article is focused on America’s third largest prison system, the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC). Imprisoning about 82,000 people as of October 2023, DOC demonstrates how the lofty rhetoric behind commissary privatization—promising better service at lower cost—turned out to be a ruse, one used to create revenue for the state from the impoverished human beings it cages. This story could be told of many a state prison or local jail.

Prior to the get-tough-on-crime era of the late 1980s and 1990s, DOC food operations were insular and run by the state. Its kitchens and commissary, like its medical units, were operated by state employees. Now all of these services are privatized. Commissary prices used to compare to those found in a discount store, often less. Food services relied upon items, in large part, either grown by prisoners or produced by DOC’s prison industry: P.R.I.D.E Enterprises, a non-profit organization created by Florida law.

“Our criminal justice system is an obvious target for privatization,” wrote Jeb Bush, a Republican who was Florida’s governor from 1999-2007. In a 1995 essay for Imprimis, an influential conservative publication, he continued: “Our prison population has doubled in recent years, and we are spending billions of dollars on prison construction and operation each year.”

Florida went on a privatization binge hoping “to save an incredible sum—as much as 10-20 percent,” Bush wrote. But in fact, as PLN has reported, the state has struggled to achieve even the 7% savings mandated by the law permitting privatization. [See: PLN, Mar. 2011, p.36.]Yet legislators were enticed to create savings and revenue by privatizing prison canteen services during that “get-tough” era.

In 1996, Florida politicians such as then-GOP state Sen. Charlie “Chain Gang” Crist pointed to prices in prison commissaries, highlighting items found there that were less expensive than similar items in public stores, which he said provided yet another example of “coddling” prisoners. Political rhetoric and sensationalized media stories clamored for “pricing equality” as another means of punishing prisoners for their crimes. The 1996 Florida Legislature amended Chapter 945.215(2)(e) of the Florida Statutes to require that items offered for resale in prison commissaries or vending machines “be priced comparatively with like items for retail sale at fair market prices.”

Lawmakers also eliminated the Inmate Welfare Trust Fund (IWTF), diverting its revenue sources—commissary operations and phone contracts—into the state’s General Revenue Fund. More than $80 million held in IWTF was transferred to state coffers. Prior to the change, IWTF used commissary profits and phone commissions to fund educational, chapel, substance abuse and recreation programs. With IWTF’s dissolution, many of those programs were eliminated, though a few survived by relying on donations or volunteers to fill the need. But prisoners lost meaningful and time-rewarding activities, leaving them forcibly warehoused.

Lost in the rhetoric of “pricing equality” was the reality on the ground. DOC offers few paid jobs. Aside from a handful of prison canteen and staff barber positions, the only paid jobs are those available through P.R.I.D.E., whose wage scale starts at $0.15 per hour and never tops $0.95 even for the chosen few in a master’s position. The rest of the prisoner population relies upon funds either sent by loved ones or earned from “working the land” with a prison hustle. That could include sewing clothes, running gambling boards, fixing radios, shining boots, stealing from the kitchen, extortion, or selling drugs and other contraband.

Obtaining money from outside sources became even harder in April 2022 with a DOC rule change prohibiting receipt of funds from anyone not on a prisoner’s approved visitation list. DOC touted the rule change as a way to prevent fraudulent money transfers—which may be extorted by one prisoner from another’s loved ones. Meanwhile the shift has left many prisoners without an income, since some family and friends are unable or unwilling to navigate the bureaucratic red tape—a full background check to determine that no security threat is present—before becoming an approved visitor, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Oct. 2023, p.1.]

The public’s general perception, of course, is that prison officials provide everything a prisoner needs. But that’s only partially true; DOC provides prisoners with housing, clothing, three meals a day, a hotel-size bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper every week, plus a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste every other month. Other needs, however, such as shampoo, deodorant, lotion, dental floss, batteries for radios, stamps for letters, envelopes and even paper must all be purchased from the commissary. That’s also where prisoners seek comfort food—snacks or something to eat other than the repetitive, paltry dining hall fare.

The 1996 law change resulted in an immediate commissary price increase, as DOC moved to centralize the service and prisoner money management, too. Prices increased even more dramatically when DOC contracted with Keefe Commissary Network in 2000 to provide commissary services. Keefe offered DOC the same centralized service, along with a kickback for each prisoner, based upon the prison system’s daily headcount. The per diem rate has increased over the years during the competitive bid process, which has resulted in contracts awarded to both Keefe and Trinity Services.

Increased commissary prices have greatly reduced prisoners’ buying power, limiting their ability to create substitute meals or purchase hygiene items. On the heels of privatizing commissary services, DOC contracted with Aramark Correctional Services in 2002 to run its food service operations. As PLN reported, that contract provided Aramark with “lucrative provisions” to use prisoner slave labor and “cut every possible corner to increase the company’s profit margin”—through use of the lowest quality ingredients, omitting recipe ingredients in the final food product, and providing smaller portions. “[A] serving full of water with floating vegetables was normal,” PLN reported. In return for this service, DOC paid Aramark on a per diem basis. The experiment ended due only to ongoing security issues with Aramark staff and budget cuts. In January 2009, DOC resumed operational control of its food services. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.36.]

DOC ended privatized food service in 2009, but it had learned how to cut costs and maintained many Aramark practices. These included a failed experiment used by other states: feeding prisoners large amounts of soy. DOC also served low grade meat patties made by P.R.I.D.E. Those patties, according to labels on the boxes, contained “Mechanically separated chicken, water, Textured Soy Flour, Seasoning.” Prisoners call the small round meat lumps “rat patties,” for that’s about the only animal that will eat one. Feral cats have been seen by this author sniffing at a rat patty before walking away.

Changes to DOC’s food service came as the result of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which forced implementation of a Religious Diet Program (RDP) and required offering kosher meals, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.14.]. The fare consists mainly of beans, cabbage and fish, along with peanut butter and jelly, and it is served cold in a brown paper bag. Yet over 10,000 prisoners flocked to join RDP because the meal option represented an improvement over the meal trays otherwise offered. The move to kosher was a no brainer for many prisoners. However, it significantly pinched DOC’s purse, since providing the kosher meals cost about twice the daily rate of a regular tray.

As a countermeasure, DOC enticed prisoners to abandon RDP in 2021 with an upgraded dining hall menu. This eliminated the low-grade meat patties and brought in chicken nuggets, real beef patties, sausages, french fries—even real hot dog and hamburger buns. That new menu resulted in nearly 6,000 prisoners abandoning kosher meals, a DOC chaplain said.

But while prisoners hoped the new dining hall menu was a permanent fix, it lasted less than a year. On April 7, 2022, Aramark was returned to DOC kitchens, awarded a contract paying a per diem of $3.089 per prisoner for those eating from regular trays and $5.553 per prisoner for those in RDP. The five-year deal is valued at $423,417,156.89.

On its face, the contract proves its own inadequacy: How is a grown adult fed for $1 per meal? But it’s not the prisoners for whom the contract adds value. Instead, it requires Aramark to provide dining for DOC guards and other employees using only Aramark staff—no prisoners allowed. Aramark is also required to equip Employee Clubs with furnishings, including tables, chairs, couches and lounge chairs, as well as coffee makers, TV sets, workout equipment, computers and work desks—even games like foosball, table-pool and air-hockey. Employees may also place orders with Aramark to have meals delivered to them.

For a handful of prisoners who survive its food, Aramark is also required to offer its IN2WORK (I2W) Program, which trains up to 320 prisoners annually in various food service roles. Aramark must also assist these prisoners with job placement upon release and hire at least 100 prisoners to work in areas unrelated to the contract.

When the Aramark contract went into effect, a new prisoner dining hall menu was posted. Aramark stayed true to its previous form and ended all real meat offerings. It brought back “rat patties” and other cost cutting measures. The author’s tray was regularly missing required recipe ingredients and had smaller portion sizes than the menu called for.

This outraged prisoners and their advocates. Using technology, Florida prisoners flooded social media with pictures of “confinement” trays, which are provided in those areas of a prison where the tray is virtually the only food a prisoner receives. Some pictures with accompanying menu descriptions are available on the social media site X—formerly Twitter—from user @ucf87cpa, who is prisoner advocate Karen Stuckey. She and other advocates have connected the “unappealing” and “child-sized portions” to a social media campaign under the hashtag #fooddesert. According to Stuckey, many Florida legislators joined the conversation on her X page. At first, they were skeptical of claims about Aramark’s offerings, but the pictures she posted illuminated just how unappealing prison food trays could be.

Without fanfare, DOC then posted a new dining hall menu that went into effect in October 2023. One significant change: The “charbroil” patty was upgraded to an all-beef patty. A few new meals were introduced, which appear to be an upgrade to this writer. But prisoners are upset that real or dehydrated potatoes have been almost entirely eliminated and replaced with instant mashed potatoes.

DOC’s contract provides two revenue generators for Aramark. DOC itself derives no revenue from either one. Aramark is required to offer prisoners its FreshFavorites Program, which provides “the opportunity to purchase takeout-style food options, including over 250 recipes that can be rotated throughout the year.” But this program had not started by the end of October 2023.

The contract also requires Aramark to offer its ICare Fresh Friends and Family Program (ICare), which allows “friends and family members to purchase restaurant style meals for an Inmate through the Contractor’s secure website using a credit or debit card,” the contract states. These meals “are prepared fresh onsite by I2W students and Contractor staff and are picked up by the Inmate,” the program boasts, and meals even “include a Thank You Card and self-addressed stamped envelope so Inmates may hand-write a message thanking the meal sender.”

Posters in prison dorms advertise that each meal comes with a large portion of tater tots, four cookies and a can of soda. The entrees offered include a Double Angus burger, Double Angus Burger with Buffalo wings pack, a pepperoni pizza with wings pack, a Philly cheese steak sandwich or a French toast breakfast sandwich. The exhibit attached to the contract shows these meals range in price from $8 to $22—a princely sum for most prisoner families.

After ICare started at Hardee Correctional Institution (CI) in August 2023, the dining hall fare was upgraded in taste. Still, the portions remained small, and ingredients were often missing. ICare callouts indicate that participation has ranged from 30-50 of the approximately 1,000 prisoners held in open population. The trend appears to be upward. Of the 20 prisoners surveyed for this article, most generally agreed that the ICare meals are filling and delicious. They also agreed the prices represent a lot of money for a single meal. As a few prisoners pointed out, with that money they can make quite a bit of “goulash”—a prison staple mixed from canteen-bought ramen noodles and other items on a food tray—and avoid a “rat patty.” Another group said that some products are still too small.

Ballooning Inflation, Reduced Dining Offerings

While the commissary contract has reaped substantial sums for Florida’s General Revenue Fund, DOC was criticized for not getting all that it could. As PLN reported, Florida’s Auditor General criticized DOC in an October 2004 report for increasing prisoners’ canteen purchase limit—and thereby allowing Keefe to increase its revenue—without paying a dime more to the state than its per diem (which was based on total prisoner headcount). The audit also found DOC failed to receive adequate compensation from Keefe for equipment in prison canteens and a warehouse. [See: PLN, Feb. 2006, p.22.]

Attempts to address those concerns were made in future contracts, especially the one most recently awarded to Keefe. In an eMessage sent to state prisoners on September 5, 2023, DOC announced the new five-year contract signed the previous month would “provide new and enhanced commissary services.” It hollowly promised a new menu with “a variety of new items that provide greater selection.” It also warned of a price increase.

“While [DOC] was able to limit price increases over the past couple of years, the nation has experienced record inflation over the same time,” the memo declared. “The prices in these new commissary menus and order forms are the result of negotiation, the level of inflation, and a commitment to provide a variety of products at fair prices.”

The new menu became effective on September 23, 2023, when DOC also touted a new “partnership” with Trinity Food Services, rather than Keefe. In fact, though, both firms share the same parent, H.I.G. Capital. The only change prisoners saw was a new menu with the price increases and few new menu items. How few?

According to an analysis by the French Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the new menu had 11 new items, but only four were actually new items. The other “new” items were similar items with a brand name change or were postage stamps. That analysis found the price increases totaled $87.44 on 130 items, an average price increase of 40%—though some items more than doubled in price. Meanwhile, according to a 2023 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, grocery prices increased by 8.4% in the past year. The commissary price increases included:

ION3 Batteries, AA or AAA, 2-pack, was $1.14, increased 146% to $2.80.

Heinz ketchup, 9-gram packet (just under one-third ounce), jumped 500% from 2 to 10 cents.

Pop Tarts, 2 pack, increased 56% from $1.19 to $1.86.

Uncle Al’s Cookies, 5-ounce package, ranged from $1.04 to $1.11 and rose about 15% to $1.41.

Velveeta Cheesy Refried Beans, 4 ounces, inflated 57% from $1.91 to $3.00.

Vista Saltine Crackers, 4 ounces, increased 141% from $1.16 to $2.80.

There were 54 items that saw an average price decrease of 27%. But even some of those reductions exhibit the price gouging that occurs under the monopolistic Florida prison commissary system.

Tradition Cup Soup, 2.2 ounces, decreased from $1.41 to 58 cents.

Moon Lodge Chips, 1.5 ounces, ranged from 99 cents to $1.11, reduced to 58 cents.

Brushy Creek Chicken Breast, 4.5 ounces for $4.77 was replaced with 6 ounces for $3.27.

Keefe, however, has been channeling prisoners to more expensive items by supplying fewer lower priced items. At Hardee CI, for instance, the supply of soup—five cases, each with 12 of its 2.2-ounce “cups”—quickly sells out, while there is a substantial supply of bagged soups available at almost double the price.

After the new commissary menu and its price hikes became effective, Florida prisoners, their loved ones and advocates decried the fleecing. Prisoners at Hardee CI, Avon Park CI and Okeechobee CI reportedly conducted a seven-day boycott of the commissary the first week of October 2023 in protest of the price increases.

DOC Secretary Ricky Dixon was asked by Florida state senators about the uproar. “I don’t want to be dismissive at all to the complaints because they do appear to be priced high—on water. On ramen noodles. Colored pencils. The big chicken sandwich that everybody likes and some various items,” Dixon told members of the state Senate Committee on Appropriations for Criminal and Civil Justice.

While Dixon says he didn’t “disagree with the outcry,” his response omitted any note that DOC approved the prices before they were posted. Contractually, DOC has “the sole discretion to approve” any “price increase as requested, deny, or approve at a lower rate.” Prior commissary contracts allowed the contractor to request price increases of 10% annually, which were typically granted. The new Keefe contract allows semi-annual price increases of 10%. DOC may also approve “exigent” price-increase requests that exceed 10%. Any prices above fair market value are supposed to be rejected and “cured” within one day of notice by DOC’s contract manager.

While Chapter 945.215(2)(e) uses the term “fair market value,” Florida law does not define what it means. DOC’s contract defines that term as: “An estimate of the price of a product based on what a knowledgeable, willing, and unpressured buyer would pay to a knowledgeable, willing, and unpressured seller in the open market.” Importantly, the contractor is obligated to hire “a third-party vendor, approved by [DOC], to perform Fair Market Value surveys for all items on the [commissary menu] no less than annually.” As reported by Florida Phoenix, prisoner advocates posted examples on social media of the increases and comparative pricing.

A three-ounce package of Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup, which can be purchased at a Walgreens in Tallahassee for 69 cents, used to cost 78 cents in DOC lockups—but now costs $1.06, 36% more.

A two-pack of AA Energizer batteries goes for $1.25 at the Dollar Tree store on Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee, but the same package at state prison commissaries is $3.30.

A Big AZ frozen chicken fried sandwich purchased at a Murphy USA gas station in Panama City goes for $4.99 but will set prisoners back $6.19, a 40% increase from $4.42.

A 24-pack of Crayola Colored Pencils at a Walmart in Orlando costs $3.82, but prisoners pay $11.82, a 49% increase from $7.99.

In Texas, where the state Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) uses several commissary vendors other than Keefe, the canteen price for a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola products soda (including Sprite or Mountain Dew) is $0.55 cents. In Florida under Keefe, the cost is $1.25. A 16.9-ounce bottle of water that costs 26 cents for TDCJ prisoners costs DOC prisoners $1.15.

The Marshall Project found that “price increases for some items are higher in prison than on the outside” across the country. For example, a jar of peanut butter costs between 25% and 35% more in state prisons than outside of them. Added to that are the hidden cost increases from reduced portion sizes. In Wisconsin DOC lockups, for instance, peanut butter rose 61 cents in price, but the size of the portion shrank two ounces, USA Today found. Soap was “more expensive, too,” the report continued, with prisoners “paying between 4% and 80% more per bar, depending on where they’re imprisoned.” Illinois prisoners were paying 68% more than last year for a pack of instant ramen noodles. Pennsylvania prison commissary prices jumped almost 27% across the board.

Items in the prison commissary are priced individually, but often they are sold in bulk. For instance, prisoners regularly purchase a box of 115 Equal Sweeteners, a case of 24 Ramen Noodle Soups, or a box of Pop Tarts. Yet they are charged inflated individual-package prices when making these purchases.

“It’s hard enough to survive with the inflation that we already deal with on the outside,” said Michelle Rothwell, whose son Danny is currently incarcerated at Liberty CI in Florida’s Panhandle. “And then the prices that they are charging our loved ones in there are more than convenience store prices. So something that we would buy on the streets [is] even costing more and they’re buying in it bulk, so you know that they’re not paying single-item prices that we would buy at a convenience store.”

In addition, prisoners pay a higher rate compared than what guards and other staff pay in the staff commissary, which is run by the Employer Trust Fund. The following comparisons come from the staff commissary at Hardee CI:

Big Az Country Fried Chicken Sandwich, 9.2 ounces, is $4.85 for staff and $6.19 for prisoners.

Honey Bun is $1.50 for staff but $1.87 for prisoners.

Pop Tarts, in a 2-pack, costs $1.25 for staff and $1.86 for prisoners.

“It flies in the face of logic that you would charge the people who have a paid job less money than the people who have no job and are relying on a second person [a friend or family member] for their income,” said Denise Rock, the executive director for Florida Cares, a prisoner advocacy group. “This does not make any logical sense to me.”

In addition to exorbitant commissary prices, DOC also derives revenue from prisoners receiving and spending money. As PLN previouslyreported, Chapter 944.516, Florida Statutes was amended effective July 24, 2004, to allow DOC to assess an “administrative processing fee” up to $6 per month for prisoner “banking services.” DOC elected to assess a fee of 1% weekly on any money spent in the commissary. It also charges 50 cents for a deposit to a prisoner’s account, though that fee is waived when the deposit is made through JPay; per DOC’s contract with the financial services firm, it charges a scaled rate that results in a kickback to DOC. The cost of a deposit from $100 to $200 through JPay is $11.95.

User Tax Created with Added Value & Unfair Pricing

As the Trinity food service contract was expiring and new bids were taken, DOC took full advantage to reap rewards, creating new avenues for revenue while also providing equipment and facilities for DOC. That revenue is generated via use of convenience-store price-gouging of prisoners and their visitors. With the food service contract awarded to Aramark, DOC consented to lower grade prisoner meals in return for staff dining clubs.

The new Keefe commissary contract corrects the failures pointed out by the Auditor General nearly 20 years ago while also implementing more revenue-generating opportunities. Like the Aramark contract, DOC’s agreement with Keefe has several value-added provisions. All aspects of DOC costs related to commissary are compensated. The contract also requires Keefe to provide equipment to create prisoner identification cards and X-ray scan boxes at the warehouse and back gate for contraband, to build enclosed pavilions for vending machines on recreation yards, to purchase and install video security at warehouses and to provide hand-operated and operator-driven fork lifts. Keefe is also required to provide certified training for prisoner commissary workers.

The Contract also has a new revenue generator. It requires prisoners to be offered a monthly food ordering program to sell “approved Food Packs and slower-moving food items” from the commissary menu. It continues the quarterly ordering program for non-food items. It also requires Keefe to “allow friends and family to place Friends and Family Package Program orders, consisting of only food items, quarterly.”

The kickbacks to DOC include an operating cost reimbursement of “$0.86 per Inmate, per month, based on the Average Daily Population.” This reimbursement increases annually based on a comparison of “the average sale price of all items” on the commissary menu at contract execution compared to the average on each contract anniversary date. The contract further provides for an initial monthly commission paid into the State’s General Revenue Fund equal to 35.6% of gross sales—meaning that the more commissary prices increase, the more incentive the state and DOC have to approve price increases of up to 10% semi-annually.

The Florida legislature has proven itself allergic to reforming prison or criminal justice policy. Based upon the history of commissary and food service privatization in Florida, it is easy to adopt a pessimistic view that true, lasting reform can never be cemented. Reinforcing this pessimism is gaslighting from DOC, like Dixon’s response to the public outcry over recent commissary price increases. “We have contacted the vendor,” he told state lawmakers, “and they seem to be very amenable to working with us to bring some of those prices down.”

Translation: DOC will respond to each specific instance of price-gouging, rather than forcing across-the-board cuts—and then quietly raise prices back where they were. After media reports surfaced that a Monster Honey Bun had jumped to nearly $2.00 in prison commissaries when the same item was available in local stores for about $1.25, the price was reduced to around $1.30. But when the outrage diminished, and DOC allowed annual 10% price increases, the price took just a few years to climb back to its current $1.87.

Trinity and Keefe have also used a contract loophole known as the ‘new item provision’ to increase prices. When the Monster Honey Bun was replaced in mid-2023 with a Honey Bun—no longer a monster, but still sold under the same brand label—the price remained $1.87. But the product size shrank about 40%.

This provision has been used this way on numerous occasions. A three-ounce bag of Ramen noodles with a sodium seasoning packet that sold for 26 cents was replaced with one featuring a no-sodium seasoning packet, and the ‘new item’ exception allowed Keefe to jack up the price to 45 cents. That’s a 73% increase—over seven years’ worth of 10% annual price hikes.

The amounts involved in the commissary contracts give insight into the huge incentive state officials have to maintain the status quo as they seek to finance Florida’s prison system. After Trinity got the commissary contract in 2014, the state reaped $378 million in kickbacks over the contract’s life, according to the state Department of Financial Services.

So there was plenty of money available when state lawmakers reinstated IWTF in their 2020 session. But they seeded it with just $7 million annually, designating the funds to be spent as they formerly were for the benefit of prisoners. In the 2023 session, legislators upped the annual allocation to $32 million, and the money is starting to be seen in educational and recreational programming. But as positive and welcome as it is, it nevertheless represents money that was effectively taken from prisoners and their loved ones in the first place, with contracts that shift the costs of their incarceration from the state to those it imprisons.

Prospects for Change

A hopeful light for Florida prisoners and their loved ones is the creation of advocacy groups. The most organized and proactive is Florida Cares Charity, which was created in 2017. Its all-volunteer staff is focused on organizing people to tackle all aspects of prison conditions, with commissary and food service the subject of near-daily posts on its Facebook page.

When looking at the history of these issues, one can’t help but wonder if advocacy of state politicians and bureaucrats will garner lasting change. In recent years, the Florida Legislature has been resistant to criminal justice policy reform. It remains to be seen if these advocacy groups can sustain the pressure needed to compel lawmakers to act. Asking them to diminish Trinity/Keefe’s cash cow by mandating better food and lower commissary prices seems a tall order in a state whose statutory purpose of imprisonment is punishment, not rehabilitation.

DOC Director Dixon has the power to do what he represented to Florida senators that he was doing—to work with Keefe to lower some commissary prices. As of press time, whatever efforts he actually made have not born fruit.

Past history demonstrates that any positive change ordered by DOC is subsequently wiped out by price increases allowed under its contracts with private vendors. Where efforts to lobby the legislative or executive branches fail, the only other place to seek recourse is the judicial branch. As the lawsuit that resulted in the RDP program proved, lasting change may be available through a court. When it comes to challenging Florida’s prison commissary prices as not in line with fair market value, the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practice Act (FDUTPA) may provide a cause of action.

That statute provides that “[u]nfair methods of competition, unconscionable acts or practices, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby illegal.” [See: Chapter 501.204(1), Florida Statutes.] Courts have declared that an “unfair” practice is “one that ‘offends established public policy’ and one that is ‘immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous, or substantially injurious to consumers.’” See: PNR, Inc. v. Beacon Prop. Mgmt., 842 So. 2d 773 (Fla. 2003).

Public policy requires prison commissary items “be priced comparatively with like items for retail sale at fair market prices.” Yet prisoners and their loved ones find the prices oppressive and injurious. After all, those outside prison who are living on a tight budget—whether as a result of low wages or being welfare recipients—are not forced to do their grocery shopping at gas stations or convenience stores. So why do DOC and its vendors rely exclusively upon comparisons to gas stations and convenience stores to make fair market value determinations?

A federal court in Florida has found that where a hospital’s prices were “at the high end of what hospitals charge in general,” a motion to dismiss a claim under FDUTPA should be denied. See: Colomar v. Mercy Hosp., Inc., 461 F.Supp. 2d 1265 (S.D. Fla. 2006). An item-by-item comparison from Florida public stores to determine what prisoners’ un-incarcerated peers are paying and compare it to what prisoners are charged is required to bear out such a claim.

The Florida food desert will continue leaving prisoners hungry as long as wily government foxes continue their policy of cost-shifting to prisoners and letting private contractors reap “added value.” Taxing of the poorest of the poor via privatization must be exposed to undermine public support for the laws that authorize privatization of prison services.  


Sources: Florida Phoenix, Florida Times-Union, The Marshall Project, USA Today, WBEZ

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