Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

Inflation in the Incarceration Nation

Nov 20, 2022

By Jeremy Fontanez

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Inflation is the highest it’s been in 40 years. That’s what the economists tell us when they appear on the news networks to explain the nation’s economic woes. There are many drivers of the spike in prices, but what it translates into is simple—ridiculous prices a lot of people can’t afford. And that’s true in prison too.

I have been incarcerated since 2002, and over the years, inflation has steadily pushed up the prices for the commissary items we need so we don’t starve (quite literally). The food we get for meals is simply too little and too lacking in quality. But what’s not going up is our hourly pay for our institutional jobs. President Biden vigorously advocated for an increase in the federal minimum wage; yet in the prison industrial complex, our pay has trended down.

The prison economy

Allow me to break things down for you.

A prison facility is a microcosm of the larger community around it, even though we are closed off from the rest of the world. My particular facility (in Cumberland, Maryland) has a population of approximately 1,000 prisoners, with its own economic structure. We have jobs, and we have financial responsibilities. For example, we must pay/buy:

  • Fines and/or victim restitution ordered by the court. (For example, I was ordered to pay restitution of $30,000, with a schedule based on the amount of money I earn over a six-month period.)
  • Stamps.
  • Email minutes (5 cents each). (Once COVID policies end, we’ll have to go back to paying 23 cents a minute for phone calls too.)
  • Hygiene items. (We’re given just one bar of soap and a tube of toothpaste every two weeks. If you need more, and you always do, you have to buy it.)
  • Medical visits (We’re charged $2 each time we see Medical Services. (Actually, it feels like they would rather see us die than treat us. But that is another essay for another time).
  • Food to supplement the poor-quality, meagre fare we are served.
  • Music for our MP3 players or the tablets now being rolled out. (For the latter, we also buy video games and rent movies, to help pass the time.)

All that adds up and generates thousands of dollars a year for the institution. The commissary alone brings in over $6,000 dollars in an average day during regular operations. So, although many people write prisoners off as non-persons, we are still very much a part of the U.S. economy. And this also means that what happens in the macro-community affects us in here.

Inflation is a natural dynamic of the economy; it is usually gradual and comes in small increments. So, when we notice increases in the prices of commissary items, it is aggravating, but manageable. The recent pace of inflation and resulting price hikes, however, has our heads spinning. And it is crushing us.

Inflationary pressures

When I first entered the federal prison system in 2002, $100 spent in the commissary completely filled my large net bag. I could live “well” (in prison terms) if I had $100 a month to spend. Today, $100 doesn’t even fill half of my bag. The price hikes are hitting so rapidly they are weekly now.

For example: Until recently, the cheapest bar of soap available cost 75 cents. But in one week, it increased to $1.40; that’s a jump of almost 100%. On June 9, a 6 oz. tube of Colgate Sensitive Toothpaste cost $3.80. But by Oct. 13, the price for the same item was $5.10. Another example: An eight-pack of canned Faygo soda used to sell for $4.40. But when I visited the commissary on Oct. 25 just 10 days later, the price was $6.20!

Those high prices are due in part to the prison’s 30% mark-up on every item except U.S. postage stamps—up from the 20% average when I was first incarcerated. The prison also earns interest on the accumulated profits. (The Washington Post recently reported that prisoner spending generates more than $80 million a year for the federal Bureau of Prisons.) These profits are supposed to be used for institutional needs such as recreation equipment and educational material. But we don’t see our spending manifest into anything other than tighter security measures.

Slave labor

You may be wondering how we get the money to support ourselves. After all, while the prices may sound reasonable, it’s a lot if you don’t have much, if any, money. (The vast majority of us are not the “high-profile inmates,” such as former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who The Washington Post describe as having “sizable prison account balances.”)

The answer depends on each person’s circumstances. Some prisoners did well financially when they were “in the world,” so they come in with money. Other prisoners have families who are well off and can send money in. But most prisoners, like myself, must earn money by getting an institutional job a. And those jobs don’t pay much.

A small number of federal prisoners (just 8%, with a waiting list of 25,000) are fortunate enough to obtain a position with UNICOR, the for-profit government corporation that manufactures products ranging from textiles (such as uniforms) to license plates. They can earn up to $1.15 per hour (yes, this is considered high!) and receive paid time off and workers compensation insurance in case they are injured on the job. These jobs also train employees in skills that are at least somewhat marketable.

However, the most common jobs are in prison maintenance/operations, such as orderlies for medical, recreation or religious/food services; tutors; law library clerks; cooks or dishwashers; and facilities/landscaping workers. They literally keep the prisons running, but are paid the lowest wages:

  • Grade 4 – 12 cents per hour or $19-$25 per month.
  • Grade 3 – 17 cents per hour or $30-$35 per month.
  • Grade 2 – 29 cents per hour or $45-$55 per month.
  • Grade 1 – 40 cents per hour or $70-$84 per month.

Although inflation has increased by about 43% since my initial incarceration, the hourly wages have not kept pace. Meanwhile, the number of hours we are allowed to work per month has gone down since 2011. Before then, prisoners could work up to 300 hours per month. We were permitted to work a main job for up to 200 hours per month and another 100 hours in a second, “part-time” assignment. Twenty years ago, a prisoner could live decently with a Grade 1 job that paid $120 a month. But then the BOP cut the number of working hours permitted each month. So, in some departments, such as Recreation where I currently work, we can now only put in 140 hours and earn just $84, including a small bonus.

We can still have a side job, but instead of accumulating the extra 100 hours, we can only work an extra 70. That’s a major decrease in pay when your only financial resource is an institutional job. Here’s what that math means: Despite inflation increasing by 43% over the last 20 years, our personal earnings decreased an average of 28%.

A more equitable calculation

We were told that the decrease in hours was designed to more closely reflect the work environment in the “real world.” Well, then they should apply the same reasoning to our pay. That would literally require an “act of Congress.” Or…how about applying the 30% commissary markup toward a pay increase for those who have to pay the cost? (One has to wonder where that money currently going. That would be a good subject for another investigation.)

What everyone seems to be overlooking is that the literally captive prison population contributes to the larger economy in the outside world. The more money we earn, the more money we spend. Every purchase we make benefits some outside entity, and that means more tax revenue. Isn’t that capitalism?