Captive market results in higher prices

Discussing our prison commissary project

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
Good morning, Contexters! For the next week, I’ll be tuning you in on state politics, criminal justice issues and maybe some romantic ideas for Valentine’s Day next Friday. Me? I’ll either be on a bus for 20 hours up to SCI-Albion for a reporting trip, or I’ll be at home watching Sex and the City reruns and eating Taco Bell. Neither one sounds less lonely than the other, to be honest. If you want a head start on a gift idea for your significant other, why not turn them into Contexters, themselves? Forward this email to them so they can sign up! Romantic, I know. Today, we’re looking at our investigation into how much inmates pay for items. If you’re a woman, it means paying more. Way more.  — Joseph Darius Jaafari, reporter

Joseph Darius Jaafari / PA Post

Individual tampons are priced more than double what women are charged on the outside, a PA Post analysis found. (Joseph Darius Jaafari / PA Post)

On Wednesday, we published an interactive story on the costs inmates pay for items at jail commissaries, the stores inside correctional facilities that sell inmates food, clothing and electronics.

The products are anything but luxury goods. Most, in fact, are pretty shabby (I mean, they sell cassette and CD-players — if anyone tells you in 2020 that a see-through Walkman is a luxury, please show them the internet).

The inspiration for this story was our prior piece about how county jails are charging exorbitant prices for religious materials (for example, cheap paperback Qurans cost upwards of $25). We wanted to know if other goods were being marked up too.

We looked at county contracts with the two largest companies that provide the items to Pennsylvania jails, Keefe Group and Oasis Management Systems. Those contracts say prices should be similar to what’s charged by retailers on the outside.

Unfortunately, neither company would return our calls to explain how they price their items. So, we tried doing it ourselves. We spoke with inmates, gathered 20 different jail’s commissary menus, and went shopping.

We found that inmates were generally charged higher prices — in some cases 800 percent more — than what they’d pay on the outside. This wasn’t shocking to many of the inmates we talked with. At some point during their jail stays, they said, they all felt taken advantage of.

What was most shocking to us was the cost of feminine hygiene products. Though the majority of jails provide two sanitary napkins per day to female inmates when they request them, getting pads was described as a “hassle” by Rachel Santiago, one of the former inmates we spoke with.

“You’re out of your cell really only a few hours to go get food when it’s served, and you have very little time to go and ask for them,” Santiago said. For the most part, she said, women have to stockpile napkins or, as she did, rely on family to help pay for tampons or pads.

But if women don’t have financial resources, they have to create their own pads or tampons using underwear and toilet paper (which you also have to pay for). Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, who was locked up in Riverside Correctional Facility, told us that she would make her own tampons out of tissue paper.

Pair this with the fact that inmates typically don’t make any money while locked up, and prisoners’ rights activists say that jails are profiting off of poor people.

And they are profiting. Our review of county budgets found that jails across the commonwealth generated millions of dollars in revenue from prison commissaries. That money is used for equipment and other jail costs, and at least one county spends some of the proceeds on reentry programs for ex-inmates.

A common reaction to our stories is that inmates should have to shoulder some of the cost of their incarceration. And multiple wardens we spoke with said the items sold at commissaries are not necessities; the prison, they argue, provides everything inmates need to live.

Many other readers took to social media to argue that prison isn’t meant to be comfortable.

But comfortable and livable are two different things. Prison food is notoriously awful, and the time between meals is a problem for some inmates. Many jails stop meal service in the mid-afternoon. (I’d venture it would be hard for anyone to eat dinner at 4:30 p.m., and then not be able to eat or drink anything but water until breakfast at 4 a.m. the next morning.) For years, inmates in Dauphin County Prison had their dinner served at 2:30 in the afternoon.

So, what’s next? We’ll keep an eye out for any updates on this. But we’d also love to hear your stories and thoughts on this. Do you think it’s right for inmates being charged more for items? Be sure to read the story and let us know in our Listening Post here. — Joseph Darius Jaafari

Best of the rest

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., speaks during a Pennsylvania Democratic Party fundraiser in Philadelphia, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., speaks during a Pennsylvania Democratic Party fundraiser in Philadelphia, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (Matt Rourke / AP Photo)

  • Children’s crusade: U.S. Sen. Bob Casey wants to expand Medicaid coverage to children at birth. “We’ve got to think big when it comes to our kids,” Casey told the Pittsburgh  Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “I’m willing to sign up for radical change.” Casey will unveil his plan in Harrisburg on Friday.

  • A taxpayer’s avoidable burden to pay for an inmate’s cancer treatment: In a response to PA Post’s story about Ashley Menser, a cancer patient who was told she had a month to live and then sentenced up to 7 years for stealing $109 from a Weis Market, The Morning Call‘s Paul Muschick argued in his column that she should be released. Not because the punishment was cruel, but because her treatment is a taxpayer burden. “If she weren’t sick, I’d say lock her up. But she should be released. While Menser doesn’t deserve mercy because of her illness, the taxpayers who will have to pay for her care behind bars do.”

  • The long, bumpy, pot-hole-riddled road: The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is planning to shift over $3 billion from local road maintenance to fixing the state’s highway system, which is in sore need of fixing, according to Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, PennDOT’s district executive for Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties. For the Post-Gazette, Ed Blazina writes that the state has held off on fixing highways in the hopes that more federal funds would come its way. But since that doesn’t appear to be happening, the department now has to face some tough decisions.

  • Albeit slowly: Everyone in Harrisburg agrees that something needs to be done to fix the school property tax issue. But has there been much progress? Hardly. “Individual interviews on Wednesday with all four party ‘whips’ in Harrisburg ― the lawmakers who would conduct the head counts [on different ways to address the issue] among their House or Senate members ― left the impression that none had been taken. At the same time, it was clear property taxes had their attention and plans were unfolding to move the process along, albeit slowly,” The Morning Call’s Ford Turner reports.

  • Celebrate past (and present) Black community leaders: It’s Black History Month, and although we need to celebrate, learn and appreciate Black leaders who came before us and honor them, we could do more by also going to black-owned businesses. It’s not an unfounded idea, in the first episode of Netflix’s “Trigger Warning With Killer Mike,” Mike attempted to visit only black-owned businesses. He ended up sleeping on a bench one night because he couldn’t find a black-owned hotel. For the Capital-StarMichael Coard argued the same, saying that the Black community should “religiously patronize Black businesses. And we can locate many of them by Googling ‘Black-Owned Shops’.”

  • Musical (Water and Sewage) Chairs: Pittsburgh’s mayor announced that City Councilwoman Deb Gross’s seat on the city’s water and sewer board would be replaced by Erika Strassburger. Only thing is that Gross didn’t know it was happening, even while it was happening on a call she was part of. She told Chris Potter from WESA that she was excited to work with Strassburger, who she thought was filling out the board’s seventh vacant seat. Turns out, Gross was actually moved off, entirely. Awkward, right?

  • A re-sentencing that’s not soon enough:  Danielle Taylor, a 26-year-old York resident, was murdered in 2016 by a husband-wife duo during a home invasion of a heroin dealer. The murder ended in a death sentence, but a protocol issue during trial meant that the husband, Paul Jackson Henry III, needed to be resentenced, either with life in prison without parole or to death. That hasn’t happened yet, and the family told Liz Evans Scolforo at the York Dispatch that it’s not fair they have to live with the uncertainty of Henry’s future.

  • Coronavirus: Philly Mayor Jim Kenney dined in his city’s Chinatown on Thursday to help dispel unwarranted fears that ethnic Chinese are spreading the virus. Across the state, Pittsburgh is the sister city of Wuhan, the China city where the virus is believed to have originated.

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