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Prison Commissary: Privilege, Punishment and Price Gouging

Jul 4, 2022

By Askia A. Afrika-Ber

I am willing to bet that a large number of tax-paying American citizen—even most people who have incarcerated loved ones, family members or friends—have been misled into believing that federal prisoners are well fed, receiving an adequate amount of nutritious food, even if the culinary product isn’t gourmet. But the reality is that many federal prisoners literally go to bed hungry and malnourished, especially those serving their time in high-security penitentiaries (USPs) or a “special housing unit” (SHU, what we commonly call “the hole”).

That’s because the prisoner population in the federal is provided insufficient, low-grade and poorly prepared food. That is, unless we’re fortunate enough to be able to afford to shop every day at the pricey prison commissary. Perhaps the commissary is the reason why we are so underfed; the commissary is a profit center. (And it’s not just food we’re forced to spend our few dollars on. We are also forced to buy items like ibuprofen, which for all the guys who come to prison addicted—and that’s a majority—is essential.)

The Price of Privilege

Shopping at the commissary in federal prison is defined by institutional policy as a “privilege” given to those who maintain good conduct. However, the commissary is also out of financial reach for many of us. The bulk of the money that prisoners spend in the commissary comes from outside support from family members, which many of us lack.

Federal penitentiaries do not have any employment available (and don’t seem interested in changing this) that affords prisoners the opportunity to earn a decent wage so they can take care of themselves without relying on already-tapped family members (if they even have any willing relatives left). UNICOR (which withdrew from USPs over a decade ago due, in part, to the frequency of lockdowns) was by far the largest employer and paid a salary of $100 and up per month. Without question, it was sweatshop wages for eight hours of repetitious and often hard labor, but it was far better than idle time with no income or the miniscule pay that maybe 20% of us can earn with the meager jobs left.

Now here’s the thing about the prison-labor pay wage: The 13th amendment of the U.S. constitution abolished slavery unless a person was convicted of a crime. This ambiguous amendment empowered state and federal prison wardens with the right to pay convicted laborers far below the national minimum wage, if at all. But without generating some degree of capital, the incarcerated millions can’t acquire even the most basic necessities to maintain our personal hygiene—items like toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, lotion, vitamins and over-the-counter meds such as aspirin, Tums and A&D ointment. Yet whenever possible, the medical department directs us to purchase our treatments from the commissary, rather than prescribe something. There was a time when the FBOP, provided indigent prisoners with “care packages” containing soap, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, mailing envelopes and stamps. But at least at USP Big Sandy (Kentucky), we get only a scaled-down package once a week, consisting of one bar of soap, two single-blade shaving razors, three to five envelopes and a half of a writing tablet.

There is no way we can manage in here alone without a decent wage. And nobody knows this better than the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., who govern the FBOP. That’s why it seemed rather suspicious to me, once Unicor left the USPs, that 23-and-1 control units (special management units, where we’re allowed out of our cells only one hour a day) began opening up: USP Allenwood, USP Lewisburg, USP Colorado, FCI Talladega and—now—USP Thomson. My conclusion is that since the FBOP wouldn’t give USP prisoners something productive to do with our time so we could earn a few dollars in the process, they needed to lock down as many of now idle USP prisoners as possibly could. Meanwhile, jobs in the commissary have become the most coveted in the prison, since they pay $100-$200 per month. At USP Big Sandy, all of the other prisoner jobs (kitchen, trash, plumber/electrician, tutor, rec orderly, sanitation) pay under $20 per month, except a few top workers who earn maybe $50.

Take a look at this commissary order form; it’s quickly obvious that without a decent job, you can’t maintain a healthy quality of life in here while also paying your debts (court costs, child support and restitution payments), which they aggressively collect on a quarterly basis. But my belief: When a prisoner is ordered to pay court and restitution costs, it should be the responsibility only of the convicted to pay. When such costs are taken out of a prisoner’s meager savings (also used to pay for phone calls, email units and songs for our MP3 players), however, it also becomes the burden of his family and friends. My belief: If the FBOP doesn’t provide us with the opportunity to work and earn enough money to take care of ourselves while incarcerated, then we should be exempt from payment until we are released from prison and employed. This vicious cycle that results in a desperate quest for money is what results in dangerous debt (borrowing from another prisoner, which can be life-threatening if the money isn’t repaid) or criminal behavior (dealing in drugs or other contraband or robbing other prisoners) in an effort to take care of ourselves. While incarcerated, prisoners without any financial means to provide for their basic needs struggle to find the time or psychological inspiration to focus on rehabilitation.

The punishment aspect of prison commissary

The threat of losing our commissary privileges is also used to deter us from breaking any USP rules. The list of infractions that can cause me to lose commissary privileges seems endless, from insolence toward staff to fighting with another prisoner. Commissary privileges have become weaponized.

And it doesn’t take much to be placed on commissary restriction. I can have my commissary privileges modified due to the independent actions of a single fellow prisoner or group, since collective punishment is the norm. For example, in 2013 while I was housed at USP Canaan (Pennsylvania), a young, white corrections officer named Eric Williams was shanked (stabbed) repeatedly over a 30-minute period. But what was an isolated, open-and-shut case, involving one prisoner who went berserk and one unfortunate officer, had ripple effects for the entire USP Canaan prison population. Take into consideration that when a prisoner harms a correctional employee, he is immediately transferred off the compound. Once it is established that he had no coconspirators, the rest of the prisoners should be able to go back to serving their sentences without any hassle. However, the FBOP is vindicative. The entire USP was in lockdown and our commissary privileges were suspended for a month, all microwaves were removed from our housing units, and any food items requiring this type of cooking were removed from the commissary list. Why? On top of that, our commissary privileges were reduced from $180 a week to $25 for six months; even the most frugal and organized shopper had a difficult time surviving on that limit. The administration at USP Canaan misdirected its anger and frustration on the wrong people. The prisoner who had murdered the officer was long gone, yet the administration insisted on waging an intense psychological war on the remaining prison population. It’s true that no one moved to assist the officer against the shank-wielding assailant. But the majority of federal prisoners are nonviolent offenders they aren’t trained to go up against another person slinging a shank with murderous intent.

Price gouging: all sales are final

In big, bold print, there is another cautionary notice on all federal commissary order forms: “Prices are subject to change without notice.” And prices do indeed change regularly, always increasing. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, truckers went on strike and vendors started raising prices, we have been overcharged for cheap, defective goods that many times are about to expire. I make it a habit to check the expiration date on every food item I purchase from the prison commissary, since we are locked down so much that by the time we get to shop, the products that are about to expire tend to get pushed out the window first. If I’m not careful, I can end up with 10 bags of chips that expire in 24 hours or 15 turkey logs that expired two weeks prior.

The same attentiveness must be applied to the prices on the commissary order form. For example, just a little over a month ago, a single bar of Dial soap was listed for $1.10. Today, it’s $1.30 (I’m told it’s 93 cents on the street), and a Strawberry Short Cake Ice Cream on a stick costs $2.30 (when it sells on the outside for just $1.16). An outdated Scandisk MP3 player sells for $88.40. (This is a thumb-sized device that has been disabled to only store and play songs.) And it breaks super easily. If a prisoner exercises by doing burpees and the MP3 drops and hits the floor, or if sweat gets in, it’s over. I’ve been told it’s worth no more than $19 out in society, but when you’re desperate for urban music, it’s worth the cost. That is, until you have to replace it four or five times.

I am no economist or accountant, but I am street-intelligent, so I can sense when I am being hustled and exploited. I am 100% certain that the same way it’s been exposed that the FBOP takes advantage of prisoners and their families with outrageous phone rates, with a little effort and investigation, the same can be proven about the exploitation taking place in the FBOP commissary.

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