Greedflation, but for prisoners

The first-ever survey of national prison commissary prices is a fucking nightmare.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readApr 20, 2024


A US $100 bill. The oval containing Benjamin Franklin has been replaced with an image of scabrous prison bars with a cup of instant ramen behind them.

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Today in “Capitalists Hate Capitalism” news: The Appeal has published the first-ever survey of national prison commissary prices, revealing just how badly the prison profiteer system gouges American’s all-time, world-record-beating prison population:

Like every aspect of the prison contracting system, prison commissaries — the stores where prisoners are able to buy food, sundries, toiletries and other items — are dominated by private equity funds that have bought out all the smaller players. Private equity deals always involve gigantic amounts of debt (typically, the first thing PE companies do after acquiring a company is to borrow heavily against it and then pay themselves a hefty dividend).

The need to service this debt drives PE companies to cut quality, squeeze suppliers, and raise prices. That’s why PE loves to buy up the kinds of businesses you must spend your money at: dialysis clinics, long-term care facilities, funeral homes, and prison services.

Prisoners, after all, are a literal captive market. Unlike capitalist ventures, which involve the risk that a customer will take their business elsewhere, prison commissary providers have the most airtight of monopolies over prisoners’ shopping.

Not that prisoners have a lot of money to spend. The 13th Amendment specifically allows for the enslavement of convicted criminals, and so even though many prisoners are subject to forced labor, they aren’t necessarily paid for it:

Six states ban paying prisoners anything. North Carolina caps prisoners’ pay at one dollar per day. Nationally, prisoners earn $0.52/hour, while producing $11b/year in goods and services:

So there’s a double cruelty to prison commissary price-gouging. Prisoners earn far less than any other kind of worker, and they pay vastly inflated prices for the necessities of life. There’s also a triple cruelty: prisoners’ families — deprived of an incarcerated breadwinner’s earnings — are called upon to make up the difference for jacked up commissary prices out of their own strained finances.

So what does prison profiteering look like, in dollars and sense? Here’s the first-of-its-kind database tracking the costs of food, hygiene items and religious items in 46 states:

Prisoners rely heavily on commissaries for food. Prisons serve spoiled, inedible food, and often there isn’t enough to go around — prisoners who rely on the food provided by their institutions literally starve. This is worst in prisons where private equity funds have taken over the cafeteria, which is inevitable accompanied by swingeing cuts to food quality and portions:

So you have one private equity fund starving prisoners, and another that’s gouging them on food. Or sometimes it’s the same company. Keefe Group, owned by HIG Capital, provides commissaries to prisons whose cafeterias are managed by other HIG Capital portfolio companies like Trinity Services Group. HIG also owns the prison health-care company Wellpath — so if they give you food poisoning, they get paid twice.

Wellpath delivers “grossly inadequate healthcare”:

And Trinity serves “meager portions of inedible food”:

When prison commissaries gouge on food, no part of the inventory is spared, even the cheapest items. In Florida, a packet of ramen costs $1.06, 300% more inside the prison than it does at the Target down the street:

America’s prisoners aren’t just hungry, they’re also hot. The climate emergency is sending temperatures in America’s largely un-air-conditioned prisons soaring to dangerous levels. Commissaries capitalize on this, too: an 8" fan costs $40 in Delaware’s Sussex Correctional Institution. In Georgia, that fan goes for $32 (but prisoners are not paid for their labor in Georgia pens). And in scorching Texas, the commissary raised the price of water by 50% last summer:

Toiletries are also sold at prices that would make an airport gift-shop blush. Need denture adhesive? That’s $12.28 in an Idaho pen, triple the retail price. 15% of America’s prisoners are over 55. The Keefe Group — sister company to the “grossly inadequate” healthcare company Wellpath — operates that commissary. In Oregon, the commissary charges a 200% markup on hearing-aid batteries. Vermont charges a 500% markup on reading glasses. Imagine spending decades in prison: toothless, blind, and deaf.

Then there’s the religious items. Bibles and Christmas cards are surprisingly reasonable, but a Qaran will run you $26 in Vermont, where a Bible is a mere $4.55. Kufi caps — which cost $3 or less in the free world — go for $12 in Indiana prisons. A Virginia prisoner needs to work for 8 hours to earn enough to buy a commissary Ramadan card (you can buy a Christmas card after three hours’ labor).

Prison price-gougers are finally facing a comeuppance. California’s new BASIC Act caps prison commissary markups at 35% (California commissaries used to charge 63–200% markups):

Last year, Nevada banned any markup on hygiene items:

And prison tech monopolist Securus has been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, thanks to the activism of Worth Rises and its coalition partners:

When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time. Prisons show us how businesses would treat us if they could get away with it.

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