Canteen prices in California prisons skyrocket, incarcerated people go hungry
Why we reported this story
Inadequate food and access to hygiene items in California’s prisons affects not just those who are incarcerated. It also creates an additional burden for families trying to provide for themselves and their incarcerated loved ones with limited resources. In both cases, Blacks and Latines are disproportionately impacted. Too often, news media doesn’t cover injustices against incarcerated people with the same level of urgency or push for human rights. As one incarcerated woman interviewed for this story said:
“We made mistakes, and we have to pay for our crimes, but there’s a difference between that and basic survival. We are still human.”
Historic inflation hiked the price of food, gas and other goods, but consumers still expect some items to remain fairly inexpensive. A package of Top Ramen costs about 30 cents. You might expect to pay one or two dollars for a travel-sized hygiene product.
But, if you’re incarcerated in a California state prison, a single package of Top Ramen purchased from the canteen is almost $1, according to canteen price lists from San Quentin. An 8-ounce container of Folgers coffee, which retails for as low as five bucks in some stores and makes enough coffee to support a cup-a-day habit for two months, costs nearly twice as much at $9.05. Human rights organizations report wages as low as 8 cents per hour for jobs inside prison walls, meaning just one item purchased at the canteen is almost nine months’ pay.
All of Us or None (AOUON),* the grassroots arm of the nonprofit Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), and other incarcerated journalists have reported markups within correctional facility stores, or canteens, for some time. A March story from San Quentin News, a newspaper run by men incarcerated at San Quentin, reported inflated prices for 50 items across 10 ten categories, including hygiene, health and food. Prices increased at least 27% on items in less than a year. One incarcerated consumer told the News:
“Health care items (allergy relief pills, aspirin and cough drops) rose by an average of 11.3%. Right when flu season starts, they jack up the price of cough drops. If that’s not opportunistic capitalism, then what is?”
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 474 into law last month. The Basic Affordable Supplies for Incarcerated Californians Act, or BASICs Act, curtails price gouging on canteen items by limiting markups to no more than 35% above the price paid to the vendor from Jan. 1, 2024 through 2028.
“The current canteen markup hovers around 65% and can reach as much as 200%, making many essential food and hygiene items completely out of reach, further increasing the economic burden of incarceration on families,” said Sen. Josh Becker (D-San Mateo), who introduced the bill, in a press release. Recent price lists from state correctional facilities reflect increases in goods at least three times just this year.
Incarcerated people and their families spend $80 million on canteen purchases each year, according to a press statement from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “This financial pressure falls heavily on Black, Brown and Indigenous families who support their loved ones while incarcerated.” The Center for Human Rights estimates the BASICs Act can save incarcerated people and their families over $30 million each year.
|Item||Canteen price||Retail price|
|Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal||$5.95||$5.49|
|Laundry detergent (travel size)||$2.40||$1.49|
|Doritos chips (2 oz.)||$2.85||$2.49|
|Folgers instant coffee (8 oz.)||$9.05||$7.49|
|Jergens body lotion (10 oz.)||$6.40||$1.99|
|Deodorant (travel size)||$3.65||$1.99|
|Velveeta cheese product (pouch, 8 oz.)||$4.70||$3.13|
Steve Brooks, a San Quentin News contributor, said prices have been steadily rising since he was first incarcerated 30 years ago. Crackers for $2.50 nearly doubled in price and candy bars increased from $1 to $1.15 in a single year, he remembers. Inside prison walls, Top Ramen, or “soups” as they’re called, function as a kind of currency. Some folks buy them with the sole intention of trading them for a service like bunk cleaning or a hot meal made by another inmate, not eating them. From January to August, the price of Ramen increased 80% from 25 cents to 45 cents, Brooks told AfroLA.
“If you didn’t cook… you starved.”—formerly incarcerated person to Impact Justice, “Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison”
These price increases may seem nominal to those outside prison walls or who don’t have experience with the carceral system. But, AfroLA spoke to and texted with nearly a dozen men currently incarcerated at San Quentin, women incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility and several people formerly incarcerated in California prisons. They shared why the canteen is such a critical resource. For some who are incarcerated, canteen food items are not just a way to supplement nutrition they say they’re not getting from the state, but to replace food that’s nearly inedible or makes them sick.
“We can’t afford inflation. We can’t afford basic hygiene items. People believe that the prison feeds us well. You’ll look at a menu and think this sounds good. Salisbury steak and potatoes. The meat isn’t real. The potatoes are instant and watery. The lettuce is iceberg. Mixed vegetables and corn are the only vegetables.”
–Steve Brooks, incarcerated at San Quentin
“I don’t trade my soups. I eat them because they don’t upset my stomach like the chow hall [meals do]. I need them.”
–an unnamed inmate told San Quentin News
“The food that they do give us, it’s rotten, either [underripe], or it’s [overripe]. It’s not suitable for market so they give it to us and feed it to us. It has very much visible mold, or it’s expired. Food I’ve had just recently, it was a year, almost a year or year and a half expired. And, they still felt that it was OK to give it to us. That’s not OK. And, the amount of food that they are giving to us, is not very consistent…
“It’s sad because I feel like they give pigs, they give them anything because they’ll eat anything. I feel like they feel the same way about us older inmates. We’re going to eat anything if we’re hungry.”
–Trancita Ponce, incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility
Interviews and messages exchanged with incarcerated men and women included story after story of having gone hungry because they themselves or others they observed were given frozen, rotten or expired food. Portion sizes were barely enough for toddlers, said many more. Trancita Ponce, who has been incarcerated for 24 years, said she helped a Jewish woman who receives kosher meals:
“They gave us [not eating kosher] a kind of breakfast bar, and they gave her a bagel, and it took 24 hours to defrost. That bagel was like an ice cube. For lunch, she got a piece of bread with jelly and peanut butter. Everything was frozen. We tried putting it in the microwave, and it didn’t work, so we took it outside to defrost, and she went hungry while it defrosted.”
Hygiene items that are too expensive to buy can also lead to serious problems for those incarcerated. Keeping clean can be a matter of personal safety. Alissa Moore, a policy fellow with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, has heard “heartbreaking” stories from women she helps.
“Conditioner, all that stuff is a luxury. You’ll see girls sharing little plastic bags of conditioner with each other, applying it when their hair is dry, because they’re trying to conserve it…Like the basic necessities they can’t even provide for themselves if they want to get a little bit of hygiene,” said Moore.
Affording basic food and hygiene items from the canteen isn’t easy on the literal pennies prison work sometimes pays.
Sixty percent of formerly incarcerated people surveyed by nonprofit research center Impact Justice said they could not afford canteen purchases, and 75% reported that access to food was limited by their own or their family’s finances, according to a 2020 report. Many people reported having to choose between buying food, or going hungry to afford self-care necessities like toothpaste, tampons and ibuprofen.
Nearly two in three families with an incarcerated family member were unable to meet their family’s basic needs—including food and housing—due to the financial burdens of incarceration. Nearly half of the families surveyed were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction, says “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families” from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
“We’ve heard stories of mothers and wives going into debt, choosing between paying bills or paying for canteen, and stories of incarcerated people working for as low as 8 cents an hour— spending their entire monthly paycheck on a single essential item from the canteen,” wrote Isabella Borgenson, campaign manager at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in an email to AfroLA.
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Working for “slave wages” within prison walls
ACA 8, a proposed constitutional amendment, takes aim at labor performed by incarcerated people as part of their imprisonment. (On Sept. 13, ACA 8 was adopted by the California Assembly, and is now being considered by the State Senate. If it passes, it will be voted on by Californians next year as a ballot referendum.)
“It doesn’t make sense that in California we still have slavery. So, what makes sense for us is to take it to the voters,” said J. Vasquez, policy and legal services manager for Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ).
Rocky Hunt, CURYJ’s participatory defense coordinator, said the passage of ACA 8 will give incarcerated people freedom of choice. “Being in prison we are forced to work. A lot of things happen that people don’t understand. It impacts you in so many ways,” explained Hunt, who was released from prison in 2021. “It goes beyond choice, a lot of people don’t survive. Being able to do the things you need to do for yourself, to strengthen yourself, to better yourself, is why this is so important.”
Read more on Medium: How (and why) we reported on incarcerated people’s issues with food and forced labor inside California prisons
Legal advocate Moore said both “slave wages” given to incarcerated people and problems with inedible canteen food stem from systemic poverty and racism feeding California’s carceral system.
Generational poverty and barriers to education found in historically redlined communities are “extremely related” to incarceration, explained Moore.
“If you go back to the zip codes that were redlined, we see that this is where the majority of these [incarcerated] women are coming from.” Kids from homes struggling with food insecurity aren’t focused, said Moore. “Teachers stop paying attention to them [underachieving kids], and they’re forgotten. And, then they’re in the juvenile justice system, or the foster system, or both. And then sooner than you know it. I’m watching them walk onto the reception yard in [Central California Women’s Facility], the largest women’s prison in the world. It’s systemic,” she said.
Where’s the money going?
For decades, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has marked up prices of canteen goods 65% above market rate, regardless of inflation, said Moore, echoing BASICs bill creator Sen. Baker. But where is this markup money going?
Hygiene products in particular, are of poor quality and quantity, according to Moore. When she was released from prison three years ago and began working for Prisoners with Children, she tested a sanitary pad from the canteen in a bowl of liquid simulating blood. She said it disintegrated within minutes. She also remembers what they called “slop” from state-run prison kitchens. A meal that might read “zucchini pilaf” would actually be over-boiled zucchini that Moore said looked and tasted like mush. Oatmeal would be more water than oats.
“If the government thinks we’re getting a cup of [cooked] rice, we’re actually not. We’re getting about a quarter-cup of rice that has been soaked in water… If we’re supposed to be getting a cup of rice and we’re actually getting a quarter of it, the California state prison system is stealing three-quarters of a cup of rice every time we eat one. They get a “shitload of money” to feed us, said Moore, “so why are we still suffering the consequences [not having enough to eat]?”
That’s the million-dollar question.
Ponce, who served on the Inmate Advisory Council for her cellblock at Central California Women’s Facility for two years, said she tried to press canteen managers about problems with canteen and state-provided food, to no avail.
“We made mistakes, and we have to pay for our crimes, but there’s a difference between that and basic survival. We are still human,” she pleaded over the phone in an interview.
Ponce said she was given platitudes when she asked why conditions haven’t improved: “We need to avoid obesity.” “We don’t have the budget.”
CDCR’s 2019-20 budget included $137 million to provide meals to inmates—$3.17 per inmate, according to 2021 budget documents. If that sounds steep, compare what the state spends to an August review of the cheapest meal kit delivery subscriptions. CNET ranked EveryPlate—which starts at about five bucks a meal—No. 1. But, how’s the food? EveryPlate advertises sriracha pork stir fry with rice and herbed Parmesan-crusted chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and roasted zucchini among its non-premium plan offerings.
In an email to AfroLA, a CDCR spokesperson said the agency provides adequate nutrition for people incarcerated within its facilities:
“California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is committed to ensuring incarcerated individuals have access to a nutritious diet. Our institutions’ prepared food is essential for their physical and mental well-being, fostering rehabilitation and promoting a just and humane criminal justice system.”
And, moreover, profits resulting from canteen markups are routed back to services and programming for those incarcerated:
“Items in the canteen are currently sold at a 65% markup on the wholesale value. Any excess funds are directed to the Inmate Welfare Fund, which was created as a trust held by the Secretary for the benefit and welfare of incarcerated individuals under CDCR jurisdiction.”
The warden of each institution, in collaboration with inmate group advisors, determines how the welfare fund should be spent. Funds are used for educational, recreational and hobby programs as well as family visiting services, per the California Penal Code.
However, “as the prison population declines, the state is able to spend less on certain types of costs—such as food and clothing—that are directly tied to the number of people that need to be housed in state prisons,” according to a recent CDCR legislative budget analysis. “Specifically, the state saves about $15,000 per year each time one fewer person needs to be housed in a prison.” The average daily prison population in California in 2023-24 is projected to be 93,400, according to a recent state Legislative Analyst’s Office budget report. This is a 2,800-person decline, or 3% drop, from last year.
On Oct. 6, CDCR announced plans for systemwide pay increases next year. Corrections officers already received a 3% pay bump in July. Officers will also receive up to $10,000 in bonuses, reported CalMatters. In contrast, inmates will receive their first raise in 30 years under a new proposal. Incarcerated people who work full time will receive raises between 20 and 40 cents per hour. Instead of a monthly maximum, incarcerated workers will be given hourly pay, “allowing them to be paid for actual hours worked,” according to a CDCR release. Funds to increase wages will be based upon available funding from the Inmate Welfare Fund, the release said. A public hearing will be held Nov. 22 to discuss the proposed pay increases.
Dolores Ponce, Trancita’s sister, works a combination of two jobs seven days a week—five days working 16-hour shifts—to support her two kids, sister and husband, who is incarcerated in Tehachapi. Dolores sends $500 a month for her husband to cover food, hygiene and restitution fees. She spends $240 a month for Trancita’s canteen funds, in addition sending care packages with hygiene items and snacks pre-approved by CDCR.
“It’s, it's kind of like you feel like a burden,” said Trancita. “You feel like you can't be independent…having to ask our family, who are out there struggling on their own. She doesn't want me to have to do the wrong thing to be able to survive in here.”
Trancita said her sister’s financial support “destroys” their relationship. And, Dolores said her family relationships overall are strained, too. “It’s expensive with them in there. The cost of everything is expensive and especially now with rising gas prices and then having to keep taking care of her
“She’s my sister, and she’s my family, so I feel like I have to,” explained Dolores. “But on the other hand, my [other] family is like, ‘You didn’t put her there.’ But to me, she’s my sister. We can’t just leave her like she’s nobody.”
*Editor’s note: All Of Us Or None, whose newspaper co-published this article, is a co-sponsor of ACA 8 and SB 474. However, AfroLA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. For more information, review our policy on political independence and other newsroom policies.