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May 24, 2018

"The Company Store: A Deeper Look at Prison Commissaries"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative.  This press release describes the report as a "first-of-its-kind data analysis [of] the economics of prison commissaries in three states."  Here is how the report gets started:

Prison commissaries are an essential but unexamined part of prison life.  Serving as the core of the prison retail market, commissaries 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.  In some contexts, the financial exploitation of incarcerated people is obvious, evidenced by the outrageous prices charged for simple services like phone calls and email.  When it comes to prison commissaries, however, the prices themselves are not the problem so much as forcing incarcerated people — and by extension, their families — to pay for basic necessities.

Understanding commissary systems can be daunting.  Prisons are unusual retail settings, data are hard to find, and it’s hard to say how commissaries “should” ideally operate.  As the prison retail landscape expands to include digital services like messaging and games, it becomes even more difficult and more important for policymakers and advocates to evaluate the pricing, offerings, and management of prison commissary systems.

To bring some clarity to this bread-and-butter issue for incarcerated people, we analyzed commissary sales reports from state prison systems in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington.  We chose these states because we were able to easily obtain commissary data, but conveniently, these three states also represent a decent cross section of prison systems, encompassing a variety of sizes and different types of commissary management.  We found that incarcerated people in these states spent more on commissary than our previous research suggested, and most of that money goes to food and hygiene products.  We also discovered that even in state-operated commissary systems, private commissary contractors are positioned to profit, blurring the line between state and private control.

Lastly, commissary prices represent a significant financial burden for people in prison, even when they are comparable to those found in the "free world."  Yet despite charging seemingly "reasonable" prices, prison retailers are able to remain profitable, which raises serious concerns about new digital products sold at prices far in excess of market rates.

May 24, 2018 at 11:18 AM | Permalink


My clients have to buy necessities like toothpaste, soap and shampoo from the commissary. The only available fresh fruit has to be purchased from the commissary. This is not only extortionate, but short-sighted. Prisoners with poor diet and poor dental hygiene will be sicker, and cost taxpayers more in the long run. But prison officials and state and federal folks in charge of prison budgets are penny wise and pound foolish.

Posted by: defendergirl | May 24, 2018 1:06:35 PM

Defendergirl, you are absolutely correct on all points.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | May 24, 2018 10:57:16 PM

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