Spotlight Exclusives

Jail stores should provide low-priced necessities, not generate punitive profits

Anne Stuhldreher,  The Financial Justice Project in the San Francisco Treasurer's Office Anne Stuhldreher, The Financial Justice Project in the San Francisco Treasurer's Office, posted on

When April Grayson was incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility, she would lay awake at night troubled by the same question. Would she be able to scrape together enough money to purchase the basic necessities she needed from the prison commissary store? Personal hygiene items topped her list: deodorant, toothpaste, a few bars of soap. And as many packets of ramen as she could afford.  “Everyone who is locked up is hungry,” she said. “They don’t provide enough food.” Grayson only earned eight cents an hour working in the prison’s kitchen, so too often she had to do without.

Thousands of people incarcerated in county jails across the country each month face the same dilemma. Will they be able to purchase the food they need to stave off hunger, and the hygiene items necessary to stay clean and maintain their dignity? The question takes on new urgency during the health pandemic, when purchasing soap and hygiene items has never been more important, and incarcerated people report feeling safer eating the prepackaged food sold in the jail store rather than prepared food from the jail kitchen.

County jails across the country often use their commissary stores as profit centers to generate revenue for jail operations. In California, prices on shampoo, rice and beans, and stamps, for example, are marked up anywhere from 25% to 50%. Incarcerated people in San Francisco reported spending $50 to $100 a week on commissary goods. The jails win—the profits go into their coffers—and incarcerated people and their families lose, who often cannot afford the inflated prices.

Grayson wants to change that. And so do the women she works with at Young Women’s Freedom Center, a California nonprofit whose staff is 90% women who’ve been in the criminal justice system. Grayson and the women there are working hard to pass California Senate Bill 555 (Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles) that would slash prices in jail stores by capping profits. The bill would also dramatically lower prices on phone calls from jails and juvenile lockups, which can be as high as $13 for a 15-minute call. The bill is sitting on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk.

Similar reforms have percolated in states across the country, and criminal justice reform advocates are calling for free prison phone calls in the next coronavirus relief bill. That’s because profiting from incarcerated people and their families is common in jails and prisons across the country. The practice raises funds for county jail operations and big profits for the handful of corporations the jails contract with. It’s not surprising that jail contractors turn a profit, but counties should ditch this this revenue-producing racket altogether. Jail operations — like education programs and reentry services — should not depend on “fining” incarcerated people above and beyond their sentences, or on gouging their families.

Young Women’s Freedom Center and my office, The San Francisco Financial Justice Project, just released new research on the profit levels in jail commissary stores across the state. Jails in California markup commissary items like those Grayson purchased anywhere from 28% (Napa County) to 40% (Alameda County) to 54% (Sacramento County).

That means prices for basic necessities vary in jail commissaries across California. A bar of soap costs anywhere from 60 cents to $2.25; a small tube of toothpaste ranges from 85 cents to $3.60; and ramen costs anywhere from 40 cents to $1.25.

These costs may not sound like much, but they fall on some of the state’s lowest income families, who stretch every dollar to its limit.  It’s incarcerated people’s family members—often their mothers, sisters, or wives–who put money in the accounts of their incarcerated loved ones to purchase basic necessities. According to the report “Who Pays?” by the Ella Baker Center, 83% of people who cover costs like commissary purchases are low-income women of color. It’s no wonder that the idea for the California legislation came from women community advocates who participated in a policy training program at the California Women’s Foundation.

Jails usually provide soap and deodorant, sometimes in hygiene kits, but the quality is so low the products are often unusable, according to Grayson. “The bar of soap dissolves after one shower,” she said. “And the deodorant burns your underarms.”

This past April San Francisco became the first county in California to stop marking up items in its jail commissary. The goal was to lift a financial burden off of incarcerated people and their families, who reported spending $50 to $100 a week on commissary items. Previously, the jail marked up items an average of 43%. After the reforms, prices fell, and people’s limited dollars went much further, making it easier to meet their needs. Reading glasses went from $8 to $4.55. Refried beans went from $3 to $1.30, a reduction of 57%. And tuna went from $3.10 to $1.10.  San Francisco also made all jail phone calls free, a move New York City made previously.

Grayson hopes SB 555 will bring price reductions like San Francisco’s to county jails across the state, and eventually the country.  “People’s families would not struggle as much to provide, and it would be easier to make ends meet,” she said.

In the richest country in the world, and during a time when families are barely getting by, it’s shameful that our jails and prisons profit off of incarcerated people and their families. It’s time to end this punitive practice.

Anne Stuhldreher directs The Financial Justice Project in the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office. She is also a fellow in the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program.  



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