VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: The Canteen Cartel

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By D. Razor Babb 

On the first day of canteen in June the E Facility store at Mule Creek State Prison sold over $11,000. When you’re the only store in town and your customer base is restrained and contained, abuses can result. In this game of monopoly there’s no get out of jail free card and when you’re broke you go hungry.

Prison canteen prices have risen steadily, mirroring, and in many cases exceeding inflated costs which outside shoppers face. Worth Rises is an organization that examines private sector influence in the criminal justice system. Founder Bianca Tylek said in an interview with USA TODAY (May 2023) that during the Covid-19 pandemic and amid fears of supply chain problems, some [prison] commissaries justified price increases by citing soaring inflation, the high cost of raw materials, packaging, and transport, and labor shortages. Nick Shepack, a representative from the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization working to eliminate profiteering in the criminal justice system, says that some price increases are due to opportunistic corporations rather than rising costs.

According to the CDCR (Calif. Dept. of Corr. & Rehab.), Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF) Monthly Statement of Operations dated 5-24-23, for fiscal year 2022-23 gross canteen sales for Mule Creek State Prison totaled $3,066,993.48 (less cost of goods sold $1,869,335.40, salaries and wages, supplies, equipment and other expenses $625.808.68) leaving a net profit of $571,849.40. Other statewide IWF administrative costs and inmate benefits allocations deduct another $171,280.23. This leaves a current year operating profit of $400,569.17.

Shoppers can spend up to $240 per month at the canteen, and many spend the limit. At 45 cents for a Ramen soup, $8.75 for an 8 ounce jar of Folgers, $6.55 for mayonnaise, you don’t get much for the money spent. “It’s a lot for these guys’ families to have to take care of them and at the same time get by out there,” Mule Creek canteen worker Jose Herrera said. “Many of them can’t even afford to pay for basic hygiene items. Others go the $240 limit and don’t even use everything they get. They’re talking about raising the price for a Ramen soup to a dollar at some point, when does it stop?”

People from poor and disadvantaged communities are disproportionately represented in the penal system, meaning those struggling the most are the ones most significantly impacted by over-inflated canteen prices. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights reports that nearly two in three families with an incarcerated family member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs, including food and housing.

One long time CDCR resident and regular shopper standing in canteen line said, “They’re just going to keep raising prices and gouging until somebody stops them. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve got all the power and control. Just like everything else in prison, they’re going to do what they do to benefit themselves and what do they care about inmates and their families? Until somebody stands up, nobody’s going to listen.”

The prison business management office was contacted, but declined a comment.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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