At the start of July, the Arizona Department of Corrections hiked prices for food, basic hygienic supplies like soap and tampons, and other items sold in the state’s prison commissaries.
A Nature Valley granola bar, previously 37 cents, now costs nearly a dollar. A pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes goes for $8.15, a 78-cent increase. Antacids went from $1.80 to $2.20. A set of shoelaces nearly doubled in price, from 37 cents to 70 cents.
To someone on the outside, an extra 40 cents here or there might not seem like much. But for people who are incarcerated, that’s often more than they make for several hours’ work — which is why female inmates at the Perryville state prison are going on strike by refusing to buy anything besides a single toothbrush.
A group of women participating in the strike, who requested their names be held for fear of retribution, wrote in a joint statement: “We get one roll of toilet paper per week and 12 pads a month. Everything else comes out of our pockets, including [non-cafeteria] food. We make between $0.10-$0.45 cents an hour. 20 percent of our wages go to restitution and we get charged $2 a month for electricity.
“With so little, we already struggle to make ends meet — often being left to choose between buying a bar of soap, which is now $1.50, or making a phone call home at $0.20 a minute. Now we're expected to pay 70 percent more for staple items, like peanut butter.”
Selling basic necessities like aspirin, shampoo, dental floss, and cough drops to a captive audience is a highly lucrative business model. In 2012, the Keefe Commissary Network, which contracts with Arizona state prisons, reported total sales of $375 million and a profit margin that exceeded Walmart’s.
It's also profitable for the Department of Corrections, which gets a 16 percent commission on each commissary sale.
The ADC’s cut added up to $6.3 million in 2016, records show. According to ADC spokesman Andrew Wilder, the money is used to provide supplies for inmates who are declared indigent, as well as cover the costs of things like cable TV, games and sporting goods, and the construction of basketball courts and visitation ramadas. A portion is also funneled into the ADC's Building Renewal Fund.
Wilder notes that out of more than 1,000 items sold in the commissary, only 268 increased in price this year. The majority of prices stayed the same, he said, and an additional 222 items actually decreased in price.
Still, commissary sales are yet another way in which the Department of Corrections requires inmates (or, often, their family members) to help cover the high costs of a growing prison population.
Whenever inmates call home or have money deposited into their accounts, the state takes a cut. Phone calls alone are expected to result in $7 million in revenue for the Department of Corrections this year, budget projections show.
That only covers a small sliver of the department's billion-dollar annual budget. But the fees often take up a sizable chunk of inmates' monthly incomes.
Standard minimum wage laws don’t apply to people who are incarcerated, and some Arizona prisoners are paid as little as 10 cents an hour.
Jobs through Arizona Correctional Industries, a division of the Department of Corrections that provides inmate labor for private companies, are slightly more lucrative, paying between $3 to $6 an hour — still well below what would be legal anywhere else.
In a particularly cruel form of irony, women in Perryville frequently work at Arizona Correctional Industries’ garment factory, where they earn less than a dollar an hour sewing the official prison-issue clothing that’s sold in the commissary. They then end up buying back that same clothing at inflated prices, paying up to $14.25 for a single pair of sweatpants.
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As one letter-writer puts it, “Many of us understand that this is Business 101, but this is a prison filled with people who have lost their freedom and are serving disproportionate sentences.”
As a result, they’ve decided to protest in the only way they can: They buy nothing but a single six-cent toothbrush.
Why not boycott the commissary altogether?
“Keefe employees should get paid, but they will not make any money from us,” the inmates explain. “They need to take a loss and realize that these price increases are completely ridiculous. It doesn’t just impact us, but it impacts our families.”