Thursday, April 08, 2010

'Buyers behind bars'

You don't think of prisoners as big consumers, but the title of this post is the headline to a Texas Tribune story by Matt Stiles on how Texas inmates spend $95 million per year - mostly on food products, as it turns out, and not particularly healthy ones. See this interactive chart. Here's a tasty excerpt about the business side of TDCJ's commissary:
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.

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.”
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.

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.


Charlie O said...

"not particularly healthy ones." That's because they don't offer healthy food products. When my wife got out, one of the first things she wanted was fresh fruit, lots of it. We spent $50.00 at Kroger buying peaches, apples, strawberries, pineapple, canteloupe, etc. Why, because it wasn't available in the chow hall or commissary. And by the way, many inmates eat strictly from what they get from the commissary rather than eat in the chow hall, that's how bad the food is.

Brandon W. Barnett said...

But they still eat grits for breakfast, right?

Carol said...

Virginia has the same commissary system. I have talked to several young men who complain, not only of how bad the food is, but how little the portions are. Thus they must buy from the commissary to "fill up." These are youngsters who are mostly in for drug related charges.
One young man was there for Christmas. No gifts were allowed, but for $20. the jail would give a gift package. Guess what was in the gift pack. A Philadelphia Steak and Cheese sandwich.
The prisoners are not permitted to bring any personal items with them. Underwear, toothbrush and paste must be bought at the commissary at high prices. A pack of Raman Noodles cost .89 cents.
I have tried to get someone to look into these complaints. I am told, do the crime, pull the time.
Many families do not have the money to assist these people so they do without.

Anonymous said...

inmates buy food because they sure don't get enough from the chow hall, and what they do get is often inedible.

Anonymous said...

"Prison officials counter that they give the inmates a proper number of calories per day and that the bulk of commissary purchases are luxuries: sodas, candy bars, ice cream and the like. “It was never designed as a supplemental food program,” says Michelle Lyons, the department’s chief spokeswoman."

A proper amount of calories per day? What horse manure! Check out an inmate on any unit who does not get commissary and he will be thinj as a rail. All the worse for him if he has a physically demanding job. The commissary has to be a supplemental feeding program to keep inmates alive!

Anonymous said...

bullshit. For many years, I've encounter complaints about mess hall foood. We weigh them when they come in, then after their mess hall complaints, we weigh them again. 99% of them have gained weight. Is there anyone incarcerated who died from maunutrition? Anyone? Kids in detention feel they are entitled to a bag of chips, some Little Debbies, and a couch to sit on while watching big screen television (like they did before they were locked up). They don't like the menu bacause it isn't the same thing they were eating before being locked up. It is not the responsibility of the counties or state to "fill them up", just to provide a balanced meal that meet all nutritional requirements.

Anonymous said...

Fruits are limited because the inmates make wine out of it. Oh bye they tell your love ones if they want to commit crimes federal is the way to go they have salad bars soda fountains breakfast brunch lunch and dinner there and the officers the same food the inmates eat in the same chow hall except the officers have to pay for theirs. They also get paid to work. pool tables basket ball shuffle board weight rooms cable TV outdoor and indoor tracks school collage classes voc-teck classes health and dental. Federal is the way to go if one is not able to be a law biding citizen. You know I don't why I am working.

sunray's wench said...

The food in TDCJ is NOT inedible. It may not be particularly appetising, it may consist of 3 or 4 staple meals in rotation, and there may not be any chilli, but it is perfectly edible. How do I know? Because Hubby has worked the kitchen for the past 5 years and tells me the meals he helps make. Some days he eats more than I do. Of course there may be some units where the food is below the standard where Hubby is, but he has been through 6 units and none of them produced food he couldn't eat.

Inmates who dont work in TDCJ for whatever reason, spend a lot of time sleeping. When you are sleeping, you dont go to chow, especially when breakfast is served around 4am. If you miss your state issued meals, of course you will have to stock up from commissary.

Anon 8.44 ~ you can't have been to visitation lately, there are inmates of every size in TDCJ and plenty of large inmates who do not look at all malnourished. How you would know whether they have money for commissary or not is beyond me, but there do seem to be a lot of psychic readers here on Grits.

Paul UK said...

I was interested to note that 1300 typewriters were bought, what are they producing with them? Will we see any great litrature?

Anonymous said...

Fruits are limited because the inmates make wine out of it.

Um, what? This really is a strange claim. How do the inmates get the necessary means to make wine? Do you have any proof of this or are you making shit up out of thin air?

Jdubb said...

does anybody remember the "vita-pro" debacle?

Unknown said...


You obviously don't work on a unit, nor do you understand how simple it is to make hooch.

We're talking about the same inmates who have also figured out a way to get high by fermenting their own excrement. If you think I'm joking about that, check into it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I mentioned Vita-Pro to Stiles, actually - it was part of the context for my comment he did quote about quality and quantity of institutional food.

FWIW, it's also striking that TDCJ sells this much unhealthy food then pays healthcare costs for long-termers whose health is worse for eating it. They can control what's for sale, why not sell things that have more nutritional value instead of chips and soda?

Paul, good eye! I'm amazed there were 1,300 typewriters sold to anyone, anywhere! It's hard to imagine anyone still manufactures them. I've got a friend (Jorge Renaud) who published a book while in TDCJ, but I've never asked how he wrote it. Maybe he bought a good ol' IBM Selectric at the commissary.

On prison wine, I think it's accurate that that's the reason fruits aren't provided. See this on how to make prison wine. OTOH, given high health costs from crappy diets, that could be a mistaken priority.

TDCJ EX said...

Sunray that does seem to be the case that a lot of people are capable of knowing everything about some one they have never met . .As for food it will vary from unit to unit and who is working in the kitchen . It is very boring and bland for the most part with a rotation that never changes .

In d act that is the reason fresh fruit is not allowed. Prisoners can and do make a alcoholic beverage sometimes called pruno .They do this by adding sugar and letting what ever fruits they have ferment . How I am not going to say but it does happened. The stuff is disgusting and many prisoners will not touch it . As in any group of people some will regardless of the reason .

TDCJ could if they wanted proved fresh fruit at chow an it would be very difficult to bring it out of chow.

At time some will not go to chow and eat what they have from store for a number of reasons . From not liking what is being served not feeling well , if they work a night shift some sleep until later in the afternoon missing lunch served around 9- 9: 30 AM .

The use type writers for various things college course paid for by a person in the freeworld , writing a legal document . some forms of correspondence , some simply do not have good hand writing and if they have to write something and make sure they are understood they type it . They buy a ribbon for about $ 2 that will last for maybe 20 pages if they are very good at typing .A skill that requires very good eye hand coordination and has nothing to do with intelligence. Some in fact are capable of writing very well the idea that every one in Prison is stupid and illiterate is ignorant. Something I have come to expect from a large percentage of the population .

The rare some prisoners who manage to find a way out of doing unpaid labor . Not the best way to do your time it goes by very slowly and they do sleep a lot not the healthiest of things to do .
Prisoners in seg or on death row do not work and usually spend 23 hours a day in a cell . They by the nature of seg will be less active and gain weight . Or eat a lot of things from store out of boredom .

TDCJ has a lot of problems food while not good is not one of the burning issues ..The torture and abuse perpetrated by bosses and rank , BPPs failure to parole those who should be , poor medical care ; as noted in this blog sexual assaults perpetrated bosses .Bosses and rank introducing contraband and there co workers looking the other way . The poor hiring standards for a boss ,the failure to prosecute and incarcerate bosses who violate the law on a routine basis . The disciplinary system which is used as a method of psychological abuse . The sham grievance system . Then the whole TX justice system is a in need of being torn down and rebuilt it is broken beyond repair . Making entier towns (Huntsville , Tennessee colony , Gatesville, Beaumont come to mind) and counties dependent on TDCJ and lot so f prisoners as a economic base now that is probably one of the main roots of the problem and why it is nearly impossible to fix . The whole moral issue of creating lots of felonies to and excessive sentences maintain a economic base .

Marie T said...

Now that there are not enough staff to allow for dinning hall meals and sack lunches are being passed out several times a week, you better be stocked up on commissary noodles, tuna, chilli, etc or you might be hungry. Check out the innovative recipes in the Echo using commissary products. Not everything bought is junk food. But mainly, personal hygiene items and clothing must be bought including shoes. I understand buying your own stuff, but if there is a profit as Mr. Livingston said, diversion of funds is never acceptable. Hard to protest but it can be done. Contact your district representative and hold him accountable at the polls.

TDCJ EX said...

Grits the type writers are around I am not sure who makes them it has been a few years . They are a clear plastic so it is more difficult to hide things in them . often they are bought with in a few months of being assigned unit they are a blue slip item they cost about $ 110 and are not a big priority unless you are in involved in apples or taking a lot of college classes that your freeworld friends and family if you have them pay for . Most of the blue slip items are purchased soon after being assigned a unit the first things you get are a hot pot , fan , and radio . boots and sneakers . along with stamps envelopes and writing paper . This ends up being about $ 300 – 400 . you can receive a linted amount of indigent correspondence supplies . Usually 5 letters a week I forget exactly how many pages for some reason I want to say you are limited to a 5 pages per letter . mail is the only way you can inform any one in the freeworld of where you ar3e and how they can help Freeworld friends and family can now use the TDCJ sites

I believe in fact Jorge Renuad did use a type writer at least that is what I heard . You would have to ask him .

If I can find a commissary list I would be happy to send it to you . If I knew how .

Maare T, I have not heard that . In seg on some units or Polunsky death row they might be fed a cold meal for lunch if that is what you are refering to .

TDCJ EX said...

Grits the type writers are around I am not sure who makes them it has been a few years . They are a clear plastic so it is more difficult to hide things in them . often they are bought with in a few months of being assigned unit they are a blue slip item they cost about $ 110 and are not a big priority unless you are in involved in apples or taking a lot of college classes that your freeworld friends and family if you have them pay for . Most of the blue slip items are purchased soon after being assigned a unit the first things you get are a hot pot , fan , and radio . boots and sneakers . along with stamps envelopes and writing paper . This ends up being about $ 300 – 400 . you can receive a linted amount of indigent correspondence supplies . Usually 5 letters a week I forget exactly how many pages for some reason I want to say you are limited to a 5 pages per letter . mail is the only way you can inform any one in the freeworld of where you ar3e and how they can help Freeworld friends and family can now use the TDCJ sites

I believe in fact Jorge Renuad did use a type writer at least that is what I heard . You would have to ask him .

If I can find a commissary list I would be happy to send it to you . If I knew how .

Maare T, I have not heard that . In seg on some units or Polunsky death row they might be fed a cold meal for lunch if that is what you are refering to .

Jennie said...

To Grits:

People on strong probation not only pay sales & property taxes but social security and medicare. I would rather have many of them on ankle monitors, paying into the system instead of taking out of the system.

Not only that but when you release someone and the are close to 60 what do you really think happens? They get food stamps and medicaid and vouchers for housing. They have no skills and generally can't get a job.

Wouldn't society be better served to have had them paying into the system all those years instead of taking out of it?

To Anon 09:06

When you eat unhealthy foods like you gain weight. As far as detention kids? They are still growing - they should be gaining weight as well as height. Maybe you should run a biometric screening to see what their cholesterol is? Can you honestly say you are feeding them on the USDA Food Pyramid?

Daily Minimums: Milk/Cheese 2 , Vegetables 5 (not overcooked), FRESH fruit 2 , Meat/Egss/Fish/Poultry 2, Bread/cereal/rice/pasta 6

To Anon 10:53

You do not need fresh fruit to make wine. Bread, candy and any juice (orange, apple, etc.) work just fine. In fact juice works better than fresh fruit as there is less pulp to strain out of it and it takes a shorter time to break down.

To Sunray's wench

Do you want to eat breakfast at 4am? Look @ how many are in Ad Seg. Do you want a cold meal 3 times a day with grease sitting on top of cold gravy? Most do not sit around sleeping only a very few. Majority of inmates are busy all the time as it is a way to pass time. Majority work out to stay fit mentally and physically as it is their only defense. Most are very disciplined and regimented.

To Paul UK - Many are serving long term and working on their own appeal. I doubt great literature as outside work of any sort is frowned upon.

Jennie said...


The majority of men I know in Ad Seg are very active and have workout schedules that they do in their cell. A man I know can do 600 squats at a time and that is just the tip of his workout. Ever heard of "Tyson Squats"?

You can find commissary lists at for states including Texas.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

9:06 PM, the very first paragraph should have clued you in to the fact that this Post is about TDCJ. Not TYC. Since previous readers have already spanked you, we'll let you get back to weighing people. BTW, no one weighs anyone upon release anywhere. (You are probably 7:06 as well) I'm looking forward to the Anon. tags so we can tell who is who.

The rest of you are to be complimented for sticking to the subject and for providing us with useful info. I've never been so proud of Anons. Thanks.

sunray's wench said...

Jennie - were you aware that in some units, if inmates are caught exercising in their cells or dorms they will catch a case for it?

Did I say I wanted breakfast at 4am anywhere? The meals are not all cold unless they are in johnny bags.

There are plenty of inmates who do not stay mentally and physically fit while they are in TDCJ. Sometime it is because of a pre-existing mental health condition, and sometimes it is simply that they see no future for themselves and sink into dispare. Those who can stay occupied do better, but anyone who is medically unable to work and either already has their GED or cannot afford to take a correspondence course have difficulty occupying themselves. Sleep is a natural result of depression.

Dont believe everything you read on PTO.

Jennie said...

Sunray's Wench

I have never heard of catching a case for exercising in cell. State facts please - which units and what year? And of course what the rule is? Like why they aren't allowed to exercise.

If you are in Ad Seg meals are cold. Most try to reheat them to eat.

Yes, depression is within the system. But I do not believe they are the majority or the rule.

Well, the guys I know that are on medical units still have to at least pick weeds as in "hoe squad".

There are many organizations that will provide free correspondence courses. Not saying they are easy to find (before you jump me) but they are there.

My reference to PTO had nothing to do with your post. It was only for a current commissary list.

There are lazy people in prison and out. I think that the demographics would compare somewhat as to who is a doer and who is a user. That is just a given whether in prison or not.

You know I wasn't trying to slam you or be agressive so...I don't get it.

Meals of course will depend on the unit and who is in charge and what their staff is like. No different than whether I cook tonight or have leftovers.

Just like at one unit I visisted I could purchase the inmate fresh fruit and a sandwich. But at another it was only junk out of a vending machine. No consistency within the state system.

sunray's wench said...

Jennie - when my husband was at Middleton Unit he was told by the Officers that he must not exercise in the dorm. If he wanted to exercise he would have to go out in the yard. That was in 2005. Sorry, cant remember the exact date. Could have been a one-off or it could have been common there and elsewhere; there are few written rules in TDCJ compared to the ones made up by whoever happens to be talking to you.

The organisations that provide free correspondence courses are on the whole religious organisations who offer religious-based courses. Not a huge help when an inmate is released and needs a recognised qualification.

I think you are reading more hostility into my post than is there. Just because you have never heard of something happening via the inmates you know, does not mean that it never happens. And I stand by my comment: don't believe everything you read on PTO.

I strongly suspect that the physical condition of being in prison has a detrimental effect on the majority's mental well-being. Many inmates emerge from prison suffering from PTSD of some degree. Those who are incarcerated for many years are less likely to be able to cope with being "free" again.

There are plenty of guys at Hubby's unit who do not work because of medical conditions. I guess it would also depend on the amount of jobs to go round and the numbers of staff available to supervise them.

Hubby's unit allows fruit at Christmas, but no other time unless it is cubed pears in syrup occasionally.

I do agree though that it would be better to have many of the inmates out on tags and working in the community so that they can contribute back into the system instead of only taking from it.

TDCJ EX said...

Jennie, I was incarcerated in TDCJ on what many would call one of toughest prisons in the US . Some call it hell on earth and on occasion it lives up to its' reputation .

I don't know exactly what those guys are telling you but I assure you that those guys in seg spend a lot time sleeping . What else is there to do ? I have 2010 commissary list I do not need to go to David Frisk's site to get one. You should know that PTO is not a non profit organization and is a money making venture for David Frisk . PTO is not registered with the IRS as a non profit.. As some one who has been trying to help people who either are doing TDCJ time or have a friend loved on in TDCJ , I find PTO to be very harmful to the cause of reforming or changing the justice and prison system .

Millions of people wake up and eat breakfast at 3 – 4 AM. I still do as out of habit and necessity . In TDCJ 3- 4 am is when breakfast is served on every unit . They usually start their unpaid jobs at 6- 6:30 am and kitchen has to cook for 1,000 – 3000 prisoners (with a few exceptions)
Seg gets 2 hot meals a day morning and diner er served in afternoon My gal's unit also has some fruit on holidays . In fact more than I ever got ! She and I laugh at the whining about eating breakfast at 3 am that is the least of their concerns . There are very serious problems TDCJ and the food is not on the top of the list by a long shot . Trying to make it a major issue trivializes real abuses and torture that go on .

Sunray is right depending on what they are doing they can catch a case for “exercising” in their cell or cubicle . She is also right about depression I would guess that almost every one in prison experiences depression routinely . I know I did as did every one around me . In TDCJ the huge difficulty in maintain contact with those in the freeworld contributes to this until last year you could only call someone every 90 days for five minutes with a boss listening to every word .and you had better be ready to go when your turn came. Incarceration and depression are very highly correlated in any serious study . PTSD and prison also are highly correlated I would venture a guess that all but a few people who have been incarcerated deal with PTSD I know both myself and my loved one d who is incarcerated in a female unit do . And other people who have done time or are doing time I have met deal with PTSD and severe bouts of depression some also experience various forms of anxiety . I would not be surprised that 99 % of those who have been incarcerated deal with PTSD .

It has very little to do with laziness . The psychological effects do incarceration are what cause people to become depressed and less active. More than once I heard “ When I am asleep I ain't in here”
Correspondence ? I suppose I you can find them and afford them or have lots of groupies to fund it outside of that for all practical purposes any higher education in seg is possible. The free faith based courses have little real world applications and are usually some kind of bible study not that it is bad but it won't help you get a job .

I fully agree that we should rely less on prison and more on supervision in the freeworld with today's technology it is much more feasible and cost effective .

Although slightly off topic
Any hostility is not directed at you but at PTO . This is due to the sickening glorification of some incredibly evil people where women would write lovingly about men who have done things that are incomprehensible to all but very small number of people . Even ex convicts fail to understand how a woman can love a man who raped and eviscerated a few women or children . That does not help any effort to change the system from cops to prison and the death penalty. Don't try to say this does not go on .Anyone can read the “ loving” tributes to the likes of Sean O Brien

Anonymous said...

For Jennie and others...
When someone comes out of prison, it depends on the offense as to whether they get public assistance. Offense and date of original crime. Forget any public assistance (gov assistance ) if the crime is drug relatede. no food stamps, not housing and not only that, you can't live with someone on assistance as they will loss theirs. My eldest daughter couldn't live with her little sister because the apartment complex had some available funded units. My daughter paid full rent but the complex could not allow anyone to live there w/ a drug conviction. Now a person could be a murderer and get assistance, and if they had paid there dues in prison then that's fine. But why single out drug convictions. But that's not the subject of this topic is it? The food in the chow halls is awful in some units. Where I worked, it was pretty bad, I'd hate to live on it 24/7, so if offenders can afford it, they buy commissary, that's the bottom line. And the people who put money on someones books are usually struggling so it's fairly wrong to put on a 30% mark up. That is profiteering at the expense of the poor and I don't care if you use the proceeds to cure cancer, it's wrong, wrong, WRONG.

Anonymous said...

Well it is like this: They have 30% 'markup' on commissary items, it causes me hardship and I am on state aid, so it all goes back to our family!
But the ones who wrote that the food at the TDCJ units are accurate! My husband says they have 'greans and beans and lettuce from the TDCJ gardens and they are served without being washed, so you get the dirt and rocks with your meal!" He says they have 'mystery meat casseroles' all of the time, and he has even became sick after eating them, so he just doesn't eat! I seen his meal card and there are only a few meals he has eaten in the chow hall! He buys items from the commissary like mackerel, tuna and sandwich spread, and chips, along with the staples like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and vitamins. He ate eggs mixed with tainted hotdogs and spent a night and a day vomiting and diarrhea! TDCJ cuts corners by serving crap to my man and others. (by the way, he is in prison for a bad check written 20 years ago, so don't write any 'hot checks!") Before my husband went to prison, I was a real 'snob' thumbing my nose at prison wives, but now that I am one of them, I feel sorry for us and the men in those prisons who are there for NO GOOD REASON! Peace!

Anonymous said...


sunray's wench said...

Anon @ 8.50 ~ Yes? (the above was not me, I always put my name).

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Think about this as you contemplate on the many reasons as to why captive crowds buy what is available. The hoe squads work the fields; inmates cull & prepare (boil) the bulk produce down to a mush. Sickass pigs and gnarly looking chickens get thrown in the mix for the protein and/or smell. The leftovers are re-boiled until all gone. Powdered eggs and pork sounds yummy until you get that gag reflux impulse. It goes away after 3 or 4 months. Or does it?

The houses next door and throughout throwing a spread to either supplement the missed meals and/or enjoy the fellowship of other captives of all races has positive psychological effects. It also reduces the acts of violence if you can believe that.

Oh yea, not that many will risk being snitched on for making much less drinking wine of any type. Now with the induction of typewriters, one could make pretty good bank with a letter writing business, right up until the shakedown where it gets smashed.

Back to you Grits, you blog & we'll follow. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to have the burglars who robbed my home put down that Chilean mineshaft and fed with horse manure. After a few years they might just get the message. My best laptop and the backup laptop were the items that caused me the most grief as years of personal data such as eBay transactions, receipts, letters and photographs were stored on the hard drives. I worked for years to earn the money to buy my home and things. Believe me, working night shifts for a proverbial four-foot-little-hitler wasn't funny; nor were the head-splitting technical courses that I had to attend. I'm now a pensioner so I don't have the opportunity to earn a good salary any more. This makes the thefts doubly annoying. As to Human Rights, what about MY Human Rights? Yup I'd feed them horse manure and chuck away the key as it's all that they deserve. Main trouble is that in Britain the government is soft on crime and IMHO all of Europes criminals are flocking to our shores because of this.