“Chow Hall” is a semi-regular column by Justin Slavinski, a writer incarcerated in Florida who provides anecdotes and insights about food and meals served in prison.
Imagine going to your local grocery store to purchase your weekly groceries.
Let’s say your grocery store is in one of those neighborhoods where prices are a touch higher. It is not ideal, but you make it work.
Now, imagine that a week has gone by and you are preparing for the same excursion. Upon arriving, shopping list in hand, you discover that the store has been replaced by a competitor. The same products are on the shelves and the same staff is working the registers. Everything looks more or less the same, save the name on the building’s exterior.
And there’s one more difference: Prices on a range of staple items now cost 16% to 400% more.
This is essentially the situation for Florida’s prison population. Earlier this summer, the Department of Corrections contracted with Keefe Commissary Network as its incarcerated canteen supplier. Keefe and the previous contract provider, Trinity Services, are owned by the same parent company, TKC Holdings.
Keefe has been involved with the correctional market since 1975. In addition to commissary, Keefe Group provides phone, email and banking services to the incarcerated population. Keefe Commissary Network has been the subject of controversy and criticism before, with bribery scandals unfolding in both Florida and Mississippi. They’ve also come under fire for charging high prices for commissary items in jails and prisons across the country. An investigation by The City found that every product sold by Keefe on Rikers Island was priced higher than originally stated in their contract.
Through inmate.com — slang for the rumor-based communication system by which all prison rumors spread — I’ve heard that some institutions in Florida have been locked down due to the angry, even violent responses, of residents to the price increases.
At Everglades Correctional Institution, where I reside, residents are indeed furious, but no violence has broken out as a result. The canteen windows remain open and residents continue to purchase Keefe’s exorbitantly priced items — with a palpably bitter grumble.
So, how bad are the price hikes?
Below is a list of canteen staples often purchased by residents, along with the December 2022 Trinity prices and increases after the new Keefe contract went into effect.
The cost of a package of ramen soup has climbed from 78 cents to $1.06. A sleeve of saltine crackers saw the biggest price jump among food items, rising $1.74, to $2.80 while a package of refried beans rose $1.09, to $3. The price of a ketchup packet increased from 2 cents to 10 cents.
Florida canteen prices were generally higher than other states’ prior to this most recent price hike. Of the total 250-some-odd items sold by the canteen, a mere 5% of items remained at their original price or went down. (That includes stamps, which Keefe is legally unable to raise the prices on.)
What explains the demoralizing price increases? According to an electronic message from the Florida Department of Corrections announcing the new Keefe contract, the main culprit is inflation. In the message, the department sought to assure us that they fought for prices that “resemble the pricing typically found in retail locations selling similar single serve items.”
Here’s the problem: Nearly all of Florida’s incarcerated population is unpaid, which — as I have written about before — leaves the burden of caring for us on family and friends. The price of a half-hour call is about $4. It costs 39 cents to send a single email. Printing an eight-page letter, which is then sent to a processing facility to be scanned to my email, costs me about $8.
In the department’s message, they also informed the resident population of a number of positive changes. I’ll admit that my mom and I actually like the sound of a few of these services, including the expansion of visiting-area vending machines and a family and friends package program that hasn’t been available for nearly six years. Regardless of how much money they’ll mercilessly squeeze from us, improved vending, education and commissary services will hopefully improve our quality of life.
But this nearly across-the-board price hike is yet another burden placed on already overburdened families and friends.
Inflation in this country is an issue, no doubt. And it is true that we are in a unique setting, where single-serve items are the norm. But we are also unique in that we are a captive market with very little earning potential. That makes us easy to scam and easy to gouge. There’s no two ways about it: These prices are obscene and out of control.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.