What the United States is struggling with continued inflationinmates have reported rising prices for essential items they cannot afford at wages that are often less than a dollar a day.
“Prices have risen dramatically,” Dortell Williams, a man imprisoned at Chuckawalla State Prison in Southern California, told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call. “And the reason we get is, ‘If prices go up on the outside, they go up on the inside’.”
For Williams, this means that the price of a tube of toothpaste has increased from $3.65 to $6. Ramen noodles have increased from 25 to 45 cents. Williams estimates that the cost of many items has nearly doubled in the two-year period since November 2020.
Those price increases are not insignificant. In California, the minimum wage is for prison labour is only eight cents an hour, excluding fees and deductions. And for many inmates, access to those supplies is essential.
Prisons, jails and detention centers in the US are required to provide basic food and supplies to individuals in their care, but what that means can vary between states and local jurisdictions.
Some inmates report being fed meager meals that are low in nutrients or do not take their nutritional needs into account. And free sanitary products like tampons and pads aren’t required in every state.
“In the past, a prison served your basic needs because inmates were seen as wards of the state,” said Hadar Aviram, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law. “Now a lot of that spending is being rolled over to incarcerated people and their families.”
Bianca Tylek echoed that comment. As the founder of the Worth Rises group, which studies the role the private sector plays in the US criminal justice system, Tylek has seen how many people in prison are forced to spend cash to meet their basic needs.
“People who are in prison pay for just about everything from extra food and soap to tampons and phone calls,” she said.
But with limited income opportunities behind bars, the burden often falls on families to foot the bill. Every year, American households pay nearly $3 billion for items sold to prison commissioners and phone calls behind bars, according to the progressive criminal justice think tank Prison Policy Initiative.
Another group, the California-based Ella Baker Center, estimates that one-third of households with a relative in prison go into debt just to cover the cost of phone calls.
“Low-income families don’t always have the resources to support incarcerated relatives, but they often feel they have no choice but to try,” Tylek said.
If such fees are a burden on families, they can be a potential boon for private sellers.
Commissioner spending “is big money,” said Kimberly Dong, an assistant professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine who studies prison nutrition.
Her research has found that many inmates depend on those purchases for “a large portion” of their caloric intake, she explained. “And the prices of many items in commissary are often clearly higher than they would be in the outside world.”
The income from those purchases sometimes used to bolster prison budgets. For example, in California, prison authorities are required to set aside most of the profits as “inmate welfare funds”. The rest of the money is often left at the discretion of the county sheriffs.
Adrienna Wong, who works in the criminal justice field with the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Al Jazeera that some municipalities spend significant amounts of money on things like prison maintenance.
For example, Los Angeles County in California earned $45 million from inmate sales in 2021. The sheriff’s department spent $18 million on various programs designed to help inmates, but set aside $13.5 million for maintenance work.
While the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in May 2021 to examine a ban on commissioner fees and telephone charges, neither policy appears to have been implemented, Wong said.
In September, Governor of California Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would make phone calls free for those incarcerated in state prisons. But that decision did not apply to county jails. And a letter of the Los Angeles County Department of Internal Services said toll-free calls would deprive the county sheriff’s department of about $15 million a year, potentially leading to cuts in rehabilitation and education programs.
But Michelle Lau, senior manager of the City of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, believes lowering incarceration costs could have a beneficial effect overall.
In her county, the sheriff’s department took a 43 percent commission on purchases made by commissioners. But in 2020, San Francisco became one of the few municipalities in the nation to eliminate commissioner fees and phone call fees.
Lau said that as a result of the changes, commissary prices fell, even with rising inflation. She also saw an increase in the amount of time inmates spent talking to family, a practice experts say could ease the transition out of prison.
Such arguments seem to be gaining momentum: Legislation that would require the US Federal Communications Commission to call prisons at affordable rates has recently been passed by Congress and is being sent to the office of US President Joe Biden.
Dortell Williams, the man imprisoned at Chuckawalla, said lower costs would have a positive effect on the mental health of prisoners, who may feel like a “burden” on their families when they need financial help.
“A lot of us are trying to improve ourselves or make changes,” he said. “If prices are rising and people are already in a desperate situation, that puts people out.”