As at any business, the items are sold at a markup, with the profit margin varying, though stamps are sold at wholesale prices. On average, the markup is just under 30 percent, netting the prison system about $30 million in 2009.Thirty percent is a sizable markup - a grocery store markup, by comparison, might be in the low single-digit range. On the other hand, TDCJ commissaries literally have a captive clientele.
Prison officials use the revenue from the purchases to keep the sprawling operation running. The profits, they say, fund inmate education and recreation, television equipment and the prison newspaper, The Echo.
Some inmates, not unlike shoppers at a convenience store, complain about the costs.
“The inmates gripe about it,” says Susan Fenner, who runs the Texas Inmate Families Association, though she noted that prison administrators are responsive to families' concerns. “They feel that the prices are too high.”
This brings up a factor that IMO is too often overlooked: Mass incarceration takes consumers out of circulation in the economy. Clearly TDCJ's 160,000 inmates represent a significant amount of buying power and taking them out of circulation reduces overall consumer demand. For serious offenders who would victimize others if they got out, that calculus makes sense: For the petty drug addict or thief, perhaps not so much.
In less serious cases, strong probation has the benefit not only of reducing costs for brick and mortar prisons, but also keeping more consumers in the free world paying sales and property taxes instead of living out their lives in a cell on the taxpayers' dime.