It costs a lot to lock people up (by some estimates $32 billion annually.) You have to house them, feed them, give them basic medical care.
It costs a lot, even if you cut corners. Overpack a dorm or double-bunk (as dangerous as that practice is.) Serve cheap food—unrecognizable, processed meats; overripe, almost rotted fruit; white bread that wads up to the touch. Save on health care by not giving any. In the county jail where I taught high school for ten years I’d seen young guys with cheeks ballooned out from abscessed molars told to wait two weeks for the next dentist visit; or students go without their essential medications because they supposedly filled out the wrong forms which would eventually get “lost” anyway in the great paper-shedder of jailhouse bureaucracy. One male warden on the women’s unit even decided to save money by rationing toilet paper and tampons.
Today, some states such as Virginia, Utah, Missouri, Arizona, New York, New Jersey and Iowa have a new, more direct approach: charge locked up men and women fees for room and board.
At first it sounds like just one more plank in the “get tough on crime” platform. But as many professional and advocacy groups have pointed out, it’s not the prisoners who pay those fees but their families, families who for the most part are poor and disenfranchised themselves, already shouldering the burden of our criminal justice policies.
But even if inmates don’t directly pay for their room and board (this policy has been successfully challenged through the courts in several states), inmates do pay in other ways.
Take food for example. If you want to eat “real food” (as my locked up students called it) you have to buy through the prison commissary service. It’s the “company store” and so you pay through the nose.
In the county jail where I was families weren’t allowed to bring food in for their loved ones. There were security reasons for this. Occasionally bread alone wasn’t the only thing that got through those prison gates when packages were left off. For some inmates drugs were more sustaining than food; and a few family members felt compelled to smuggle them in, buried in a resealed box of raisin bran, say, or layered between slices of bread. To address this abuse (and just as likely to save the staff hours of time checking each package that came in) the department of corrections contracted with a private commissary service.
Commissary food wasn’t any healthier than what inmates got at chow. (In jail there’s no breakfast, lunch or dinner, but chow, and all the connotations of that word.) It was loaded with fat, salt, and sugar. Any nutrition was processed out. It was junk food. 7-Eleven food. Bodega food. Chips, honey buns, beef jerky, ramen soups, candy bars.
Each week the private food service (they served over 600 jails nationally) gave out its commissary list. My students, like little boys making their Christmas list, checked off what they wanted, that is if they were lucky enough to have someone to put “money on their books” to pay for their purchases.
I got hold of that commissary list once and was shocked by the prices. Just like the convenience store buried in the inner city, the prices were grossly inflated—even more so. A small jar of basic peanut butter was over $5; a small Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup over $2. Paying top price for food, inmates were lining the pockets of the private food service.
And in a grotesque triumph of consumerism, the company’s website offered what it called the “I Care Gift Services” which “allowed family and friends to send gifts for any occasion.” For a hefty price, an inmate could receive a gift bag with names like Spring Snack; Meal Deal; Chocolate Lovers Pack; or Meaty Big and Beefy, collections of “goodies” that cost double the price of any store.
(The irony of the “I Care” service is its assumption that inmates’ families have access not only to computers, but to credit cards as well, commodities in short supply in the poorest neighborhoods where the majority of the US inmate population comes from.)
Whatever scheme society thinks up to make money from, or cover the cost of its penal system, our broken but burgeoning prison system puts a heavy price on all of Americans. We all pay in ways we have yet to realize.