What's on a Prisoner's Shopping List?
by Matt Kelley · April 12, 2010
Most people don't think about prisoners as consumers. But a new interactive graphic from the Texas Tribune sheds some light on prisoners' purchasing habits. The most popular items at the state's prison commissaries include instant Ramen noodles, sugary soft drinks, stamps and shoes — and Texas prisoners buy a lot of them. In the last fiscal year, the state's 160,000 prisoners spent $95 million at prison commissaries.
Prisoners often make just a few cents an hour for their work inside, so it might take 80 hours of work to save up to buy something as simple as a fan. But for many, these purchases represent more than just commodities.
Commissary accounts are usually filled by family or friends on the outside so prisoners can buy food or clothing to supplement the often-spare supplies offered by the institution. If every prisoner in the country spent an average of $600 a year, as Texans do, the country's commissary business would add up to about an annual $1.4 billion.
These are big numbers, and the Tribune's graphic explaining which items are most popular is intriguing, but the story's heart is really how critical commissaries are inside prisons. Most prisoners will tell you that the food and clothing they can purchase are crucial to maintaining sanity inside. I've heard plenty of stories about the power of ice cream to make life just a little more bearable in prison, and about the influence wielded by prisoners with particularly flush commissary accounts. Some of the most moving stories of generosity I've heard involve prisoners using the few dollars in their account to buy a snack — or even a small TV — for a fellow prisoner without access to funds.
The Tribune's story behind the numbers is here.
Many prisoners complain about price-gouging at commissaries, but the markup in Texas is 30% — a fairly typical margin for retailers. Some states are better than others, but commisarries don't typically rival the pricing injustice inflicted on many prisoners to make phone calls at $1 a minute.
Prisoners in many states can also get supplies through mail-order catalogs — the most common being J.L. Marcus. Many prisoners just get by with that they're given, however — they don't have a dollar to their name and they lack an outside support system to fund their account. More than half of commissary accounts in Texas carry a balance of less than $5. If a prisoner is classified as indigent, Texas will supply them with stamps, writing supplies and basic hygiene supplies.
The Tribune's reporting gives us a glimpse into how prisoners cope. The commissary is a central part of prison life — it represents one of the few chances prisoners have to make decisions on their own.