By Corinne Merdegia
Over the holidays, families of incarcerated individuals are barred by many correctional facilities from mailing gift packages or directly giving their loved ones presents during visits. Facilities enacted these strict measures in an effort to clamp down on prison/jail drug and weapon smuggling. Alternately, family and friends are encouraged to shop from private vendors or the facilities’ online commissaries to send food, clothing, and gifts to the incarcerated. These private companies market these care packages as the best solution to the strict security measures. However, a deeper look into the highly lucrative industry of prison care packages and correctional facility online commissaries reveal the exploitative hold private companies have over the incarcerated and their families.
According to Prison Policy Institute’s 2015 study, “Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-incarcerated Incomes of the Imprisoned”, pre-incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 in 2014 dollars. The current federal poverty level is $12,060 for individuals. Without a reliable income, due to the incarceration of a loved one, families that were supported previously by the inmates may not have the financial means to send these care packages sold by private vendors. Despite efforts by family members to relax the strict no personalized gift measures through two failed lawsuits in California and New Mexico, families have no choice during the holidays but to purchase through the private vendors.
Prison and jail commissaries are big businesses that prey upon the limited financial resources of families. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2017 study, “Following the Money,” private companies that supply goods to the prison commissary bring in almost as much money ($2.9 billion) as governments pay private companies ($3.9 billion) to operate the private prisons. Commissaries account for $1.6 billion of the $2.9 billion profit.
As such, private companies are increasingly seeking to take advantage of the revenues made by commissaries. Private vendors, such as national school lunch provider Aramark and Access Securepak, provide families with catalogs of prison-approved items available at the facilities’ commissaries. These prison-approved items are often priced substantially higher than at normal market rate and include food products that lack nutritional value and are high in preservatives. As a result, many families may be struggling to afford these pre-made and prison-approved care packages. For example, in La Crosse County in Wisconsin, Aramark sells a “Meal Deal” care package, which includes 20 packets of ramen, one pack of saltine crackers, and a bag of chips, for $41.99. For the holidays, Aramark sells a “Game Night” care package, which includes coloring books, four small bags of chips, and 3 packets of cookies, for $53.99.
Given these exorbitant care package prices, the rates for prison-approved items vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For instance, a wire-free bra sold by Union Supply Direct costs $13.80 at Georgia’s Arrendale State Prison whereas the same bra is sold for $25.95 at Northeast Correctional Complex in Tennessee. Individual contracts negotiated between corrections departments and their private vendors dictate the price variation amongst the products. However, a minority of counties, such as Los Angeles County, mandate that prices fall within 2 percent of the costs of the same item at any three convenience and grocery stores within 12 miles of the central jail.
Family members lament over their inability to send personalized gifts to their loved ones. Instead, they must settle for the multitude of pre-packaged, heavily-processed, and overpriced goods. Even if families purchase care packages from these private vendors or from online commissaries, some correctional facilities limit the amount of packages and items received by inmates. On top of the specified limits, facilities may even charge inmates and their families a processing or handling fee to deliver the goods to the inmate. For example, at Carson City Correction in Michigan, inmates may only receive 1 package worth up to $85 every three months and are subject to a $4 handling fee. At Kent County Jail, also in Michigan, inmates are subject to a $100 limit of goods per week, but are not charged any handling fees.
The holidays are supposed to be a time for reflection, bonding with family and friends, and sharing. Families seeking to give gifts to their incarcerated loved ones during the holiday season should not be punished by private vendors and online commissaries with sky high care package prices. These private vendors and online commissaries, like the Grinch, do not care for the holiday spirit, but instead, they deceivingly dress up their care packages as a “powerful, convenient way to tell [loved ones] they have [family support]”. Like the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas, these predatory companies take gifts and money from the families along with their holiday spirits.