Opinion: Predatory price gouging on basic needs like soap, tampons must end in California prisons

UPDATE: SB 474, BASICs Act, Passes Assembly Public Safety Committee to Reduce Markups in Prison Canteen. Read Press Release here.

SB 474 is co-sponsored by All of Us or None, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Legal Aid at Work, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, MILPA Collective, and the Women’s Foundation California Solís Policy Institute.

“Let’s be honest about what’s going on. Price gouging refers to the practice of charging excessive prices on goods needed by victims of disaster or crisis, and that’s exactly what is happening,” said Su Kim, Policy Manager with UnCommon Law. “CDCr is taking advantage of a disenfranchised population that is experiencing enormous deprivation — a population who has no choice but to shop at prison canteens to meet their basic needs for nutrition, hygiene, and human dignity. It is unacceptable for CDCR to force incarcerated Californians and their loved ones to directly fund operating expenses by paying egregious mark-ups on essential goods.”

“Every resident in California should have the comfort of knowing they can afford their basic needs — the ability to eat when they’re hungry, to have hygiene products like soap, toothpaste, and deodorant, as well as essentials such as toilet paper. The incarcerated community has the same basic needs as everyone else, but over the years, canteen prices have skyrocketed, making it very difficult to afford food and hygiene items.”

These are the words of Macio Lindsey, who is incarcerated in a California substance abuse treatment facility in Corcoran. Macio is experiencing firsthand the disproportionate impacts extreme price gouging in our state prisons have not only on those in our correctional facilities but also on their families and loved ones who support them.

Across California, prison systems are causing disproportionate harm to incarcerated individuals and their families by charging, on average, 65 percent markups on essential, everyday items and medication. Supplies like soap, toothpaste, and even tampons are marked up to absurd levels and sold to a population whose hourly wage is less than 50 cents.

In CA’s prison system, the commissary markup is set at an exorbitant rate of 65% because CDCR relies on the revenue from canteen sales to support its Inmate Welfare Fund. The vast majority of the profit margin from canteen sales is used to pay canteen staff, while a small minority goes towards funding programs, services and supplies within the Inmate Welfare Fund. In other words, incarcerated people and their loved ones are paying out of their own pockets to subsidize some of CDCR’s operating expenses.

Meanwhile, profits made from the predatory pricing in California’s jail commissaries are resulting in millions of dollars which are being pocketed within sheriff’s departments instead of being directed towards supporting rehabilitation services and successful reentry programs for incarcerated folks.

And San Diego County jails* are no exception: the jail* system has been increasingly more dependent on canteen profits since it stopped charging for outgoing calls. A recent Grand Jury report noted that “with the transition to free phone calls, a greater dependence has emerged on profits from the Jail* Stores Commissary Fund and monies.”

Women’s Foundation California’s Solís Policy Institute-State Criminal Justice Reform team, in collaboration with other grassroots organizations, is raising awareness about the predatory price gouging that is occurring, and advocating for policy changes like Senate Bill 474, authored by Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo, which would protect incarcerated individuals and their families by placing a maximum 10 percent mark-up ceiling on commissary items.

When we discuss pursuing a just and equitable society, it is crucial that we recognize that those same values of equity and fairness extend to all individuals, including those incarcerated.

Unfortunately, California’s prisons don’t uphold those same values. In fact, the same system tasked with rehabilitating and instilling the values of a just society is doing the opposite by participating in extreme price gouging within prison walls.

The negative effects that stem from this predatory pricing scheme are extensive. Adequate access to communication, educational resources and hygiene products is essential for fostering personal growth and preparing incarcerated individuals for successful reintegration into society. These essentials aren’t cheap and the burden often falls on the families, forcing one in five U.S. families with an incarcerated loved one to take out a loan in order to support adequate access to food, health care and communication. By making these necessities unaffordable, we deny incarcerated individuals the chance to rebuild their lives, and we increase the likelihood of recidivism.

We must not forget that the individuals who are placed behind bars are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Being complicit or turning a blind eye to this issue only allows for the perpetuating cycle of oppression to continue and magnifies the negative effects alongside it.

As state leaders work to reorganize California’s prison systems, price gouging must be part of the discussion in addressing the inequalities that start from within the system. To start, it’s going to take a multifaceted and all-hands-on-deck approach.

At Women’s Foundation California, we believe that change is led by those with lived experience and should reflect the diversity of California. The Solís Policy Institute’s network of more than 600 alums have a proven track record of ushering more than 50 bills into law that build health, safety and prosperity for all.

Helping correct a system that impacts hundreds of thousands of Californians is no small feat.

Yet we can take a closer step towards achieving a more equitable future for all when we shine a light on needed policies like Senate Bill 474, righting the wrongs and providing specific direction to the individuals and organizations perpetuating unfair policies.

Equity knows no bounds, has no borders, and extends to every individual like Macio and the thousands of other individuals behind bars in California.

The price gouging in California prisons represents a violation of the principles we hold dear: fairness, justice and compassion. By addressing this injustice, we move one step closer to creating a society that values every human being, regardless of their circumstances.

*NOTE: This bill will only apply to canteen stores operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Originally Posted in the San Diego Union- Tribune

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