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Prisoners may be locked in but priced out when it comes to commissary prices

At a publication called The Appeal, Senior Reporter Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg and Editor Ethan Corey spent months collecting commissary price lists from prisons nationwide. They concluded people behind bars are often charged more than the general public.

 "They can’t shop around. They have to use this commissary, and so you have them being charged higher prices than we would be charged in the community.," Weill-Greenberg says.

A study by The Appeal shows inmates are often charged more than what consumers on the outside pay.
The Appeal
A study by The Appeal shows inmates are often charged more than what consumers on the outside pay.

Overall, prices in Virginia were similar to what you’d find in the community, but there were exceptions. Inmates paid more than $33 for a plastic fan that cost less than $23 at Lowe’s. A can of beans was $2.08 – available at Whole Foods for $1.39, and a pair of Levi’s was ten dollars more than the online price.

Weill-Greenberg adds that those differences may not seem like a big deal until you look at the pay scale in prisons.

"The minimum wage for an incarcerated worker in Virginia is 27 cents and hour. The maximum wage is 45 cents an hour."

Which means the families of prisoners often end up paying a bill they can’t always afford.

 "People in poverty are disproportionately represented in our criminal legal system," Weill-Greenberg says. "They may have lost the bread winner when the person got incarcerated."

They’ve now created a database for two dozen commonly purchased items from canned beans, ramen noodles and peanut butter to hair conditioner, deodorant, soap and rosary beads.

They noted some big differences in what’s charged for items used by those who are not Christian. Jewish men, for example, can get a prayer shawl through the commissary for sixty bucks, but one is available online for under 20. A Christmas card costs 85 cents, but the price to wish someone a happy Ramadan in Virginia is $2.33. And if you’re a Wican – and, yes, there are Wicans in the Virginia Department of Corrections, a deck of tarot cards that could be had for under six dollars are available through the commissary for $17.33.

Back in 2022, at the request of state legislators, the Department of Corrections organized a work group to make recommendations on commissary. It suggested

Spending more than the $2.22 now allocated each day to feed each inmate so prisoners wouldn’t have to supplement at the store. At The Appeal, Weill Greenberg recalls a story she did on food service at the Fluvanna Correctional Center.

 "Women told me that they found roaches on their trays, that the food was spoiled and that it was truly inedible."

The state claimed it would cost another $24 million a year to improve food service.

The committee also suggested dropping the 9% commission paid to the state by a private company that operates commissaries. The Department of Corrections noted that money -- $3.7 million a year – is used to fund religious, educational and recreational programs for prisoners.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief