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(Illustration by Hal Marie Saga/AfroLA)

What incarcerated people told us about their experiences with prison canteens

Eliza Partika spent two months reporting on price markups in California state prison canteens. She used Getting Out, a paid text messaging app run by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for those currently incarcerated to communicate with people outside prison walls, to connect with men and women at state correctional facilities across California. 

Read the story on AfroLA: Canteen prices in California prisons skyrocket, incarcerated people go hungry

(Photo illustration by Hal Marie Saga/AfroLA; Photo credits: Unsplash)

Partika interviewed a dozen people via Getting Out and one person (Trancita Ponce) by phone. What follows are some of their unabashed accounts of incarcerated life, especially their experiences with their prisons’ canteens and state-provided meals. 

Talking to incarcerated people wasn’t just reporting for this story. It’s the beginning of building trust with these people—some of which will re-enter our local communities upon release. It’s about letting them know that their voice matters to AfroLA as part of the conversation, even from behind prison walls.

Read more on Medium: How (and why) we reported on incarcerated people’s issues with food and forced labor inside California prisons

We even had some of the people we spoke with help produce content. We commissioned Jessie Milo, who contributes comics to All of Us or None Newspaper while incarcerated at San Quentin, to draw an original piece for our story on prison canteens. (We paid Jessie like a regular AfroLA contributor for his work.)

Comic panels depicting an incarcerated person trying to purchase items at the prison canteen. The second panel is a corrections officer telling an inmate wrapped in chains: "Right of the Incarcerated Shopper! Prison Economics: We'll reduce prisoner pay to $14.00 for 160 hours labor. We'll raise price of goods higher then grocery stores. They are in chains. They have to buy from us."
(Credit: Jessie Milo for AfroLA)

Editor’s note: Personal information, including booking numbers and the reason for incarceration, are purposefully omitted. While this information is publicly available, AfroLA’s editorial team deems it irrelevant to the experiences these people shared and believe the information is prejudicial to the credibility of their accounts.

Additionally, interviewees were reimbursed for the cost of messaging with AfroLA post-publication, and weren’t told they would be compensated prior to agreeing to be interviewed. Read more about this decision and our process of interviewing incarcerated people here.

Jump to:

  • Steven Warren, incarcerated 20 years, San Quentin State Prison
  • Amy Moss, incarcerated 27 years, Central California Women’s Facility
  • Monica Diaz, incarcerated 28 years, California Institute for Women 
  • Trancita Ponce, incarcerated 24 years, Central California Women’s Facility
  • Dante D. Jones, incarcerated 16 years, San Quentin State Prison*
  • Juan Haines, incarcerated 27 years, San Quentin State Prison*
  • Anthony Tafoya, incarcerated 15 years, San Quentin State Prison

*San Quentin Race, Resistance and Incarceration Workshop participant

Steven Warren, incarcerated 20 years, San Quentin State Prison

CDCR uses something called MyPlate to understand calories and types of foods to serve us. Our food is very bad with a couple of exceptions. They do caloric replacements like “protein crumbles” to replace meat, beans with every meal. Yes, a lot of the time, things are rotten or close to expirations. Separately, but relevant, serve-safe practices aren’t taught within the kitchen to incarcerated employees. They have sized “scoops” for portioning and it doesn’t fill you. Also the menu only sounds and looks good on paper, not what comes on your tray! We get 500 calories for lunch, 2500 calories a day. Our lunches are terrible! PB&J with pretzels or beans, or some sort of processed baloney. We don’t taste real meat often, if at all. CDCR made $3 million last year off of the canteen here at San Quentin State Prison and $82 million across California’s prisons. We never see this inmate welfare fund they speak of. The majority of the money goes to the purchase of canteen, and mainly the salaries and benefits of canteen “free” staff.

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Amy Moss, incarcerated 27 years, Central California Women’s Facility

I know there is a policy that says they could not mark up prices over 10%, I believe. Not sure the exact percent. However, it has gone beyond that on all items at one time or another. I understand that inflation is real, and it was felt here as well! I think the biggest issue is that they take 55% of income first and then the pay here is only pennies. You may earn 20 dollars ( if you’re lucky) but only see $10 of it. It is not at all sufficient enough for one to live on, nor is the indigent package. The way we are fed is absolutely disrespectful half the time; the same menu is rotated and whoever is living with just that is starving. 

I think it’s a combination of issues that need to be addressed. It’s hard for families to provide for most due to the hard times and the economy. The fact that everything is so expensive puts a burden, and one does not want to [be a burden] to their families. I myself do not like to ask for too much because I know that it’s hard, and I do not want to be a burden or bring problems on others. I do however in some ways depend on the outside for that support when I can not provide for myself. We are limited on those options. 

I have been in prison for 27 years, and yes, I have seen a big difference in the way we are fed, and the prices.What I usually buy is my food and some necessities. Shine light on the whole issue because it is about pay as well as what we can buy. I hope this is helpful for all of us, especially the lifers!

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Monica Diaz, incarcerated 28 years, California Institute for Women 

I have been incarcerated for 23 years. I usually buy creamer, sugar and rice. I use sugar and creamer for my coffee (I love coffee!) And the rice I use as an affordable meal when I am programming or the food in the dining hall is just inedible.

I don’t think rice is a healthy meal. However, the reality is that it is a more affordable option as a meal. Even Ramen soups have gone up to a ridiculous price of $0.45 per Ramen! I am overweight – that’s just the reality – for me, I feel less guilty and more healthy eating some rice as opposed to a ramen. There is a vegetable option sold in the canteen—not fruit though—but again, prices often dictate what a person buys. I can get more “meals” out of buying rice versus buying a small container of preserved green beans. 

I absolutely have noticed the changes in the canteen prices in the years I have been incarcerated. This is definitely a major point of discussion amongst the residents here. Aside from the potential to engage in criminal activity to obtain material goods, the increase in the canteen prices also promotes a hostile environment. Food sharing is a practice used by all different cultures to promote peace and foster a stronger sense of community. However, these rising costs on canteen have bred the mentality that there is “not enough” for everyone and therefore there is less sharing going on. The sense of community wanes and violence and hostility abound.

I do not have a steady financial support system out there. When I am offered assistance, I accept with great humility and trepidation because I do not want anyone to feel like they owe me anything. I do believe my relationships are affected because my supporters wish they could do more to help me but with rising costs out there, they have to take care of their own households.

I think the biggest misconception people have about food for incarcerated people is that we get enough food. I know that some people would say that we are serving time for crimes we committed and so we are lucky we have food. And yet, to deny such a basic need as food, does nothing to promote rehabilitation. Maslow’s Hierarchy still applies.

I think the only way to correct these misconceptions is through articles such as yours. I think a lot of what people think and believe about prison is a result of Hollywood’s movies and shows, which are created more to entertain than to depict accurate accounts.

What people should understand about this article is that incarcerated people are still people. There is so much emphasis placed on rehabilitation. Not all incarcerated individuals are serving life sentences. Many will complete their time and go back out into society. When serving time, a person doesn’t lose their right to be treated as a human being. And this also extends to their loved ones. It is so mind blowing how many people are affected by the rising costs of canteen and how much more harm is created as a result.

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Trancita Ponce, incarcerated 24 years, Central California Women’s Facility

I was buying bottled water for a long time because the water that they give us in here, they just came up with the filtered water fountains but even those taste horrible. There are signs all over the institution saying” attention staff do not drink, the water is contaminated, they have high levels of arsenic in it”, but yet they were forcing us to drink this for years. So I would prefer to buy bottled water, do I spend $100 on bottled water or just $100 on food and hygiene.  People are getting cancer  and h pylori from the trace and then the water has so much arsenic in it that you’re like slowly dying or getting diseases and it’s just hair. A lot of women’s hair were thinning before they put these filter waters in here. 

When I first got incarcerated 23 years ago, they would give us a lot in that four pieces of reading it too passive baloney. A pack of Famous Amos cookies, little bag of Doritos and a drink mix. We don’t even get a full box. We get them up In I don’t even know what it’s called a piece of box to go in there was like, like those small little pieces of cardboard in there in a plastic bag with a small pack of hummus and pretzels. And they’re really small stash pretzels and small packs of seeds. That’s it, even if they get all the almonds they  put in our lunches from the almond trees outside the grounds, They’d have a team of people who could go outside the gates to pick the almonds, and They’re old. They’re not edible, this is not edible. And I have personally, I have reported this many times. 

I understand that the world knows that we are incarcerated. Absolutely. You know, we have to, you know, atone for our crimes. However, like I said before, we’re still humans. And you know, we have to still be treated as we’re still being punished every day by the way they feed us and by these prices that continuously go up and up and up. And it’s like, it’s not okay. 

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Dante D. Jones, incarcerated 16 years, San Quentin State Prison

How do I describe my canteen experience at San Quentin? 

Well, I guess I would describe it as “frugal.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines frugal as “operating with little waste or at a saving” and “careful managing of money.” I’d say that they both apply.

First, let me state that I am so thankful to Allah that for the 16 years that I’ve been incarcerated —from the county to prison—I have always had the opportunity to go to the canteen. This is because my family has been there for me the whole way and it’s been a blessing that I’ve never taken for granted. 

I recognized that, even though I am far from anything that could be considered “jailhouse ballin,” there are people in these stoops [prison] who 1) struggle with making it to canteen, or 2) have never been. Therefore, this type of knowledge keeps me humble.

That being said, there used to be a time in my prison experience when going to canteen wasn’t a cause for anxiety, financially. Yes, I’m talking about the damn prices. They’re ridiculous!

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have a sense of understanding about the fact that there is an inflation crisis in this country. It is affecting nearly everyone who isn’t financially capable of not having to worry about their finances. However, as an incarcerated person, inflation affects me in a completely different way.

As it stands, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is allowed to place a 65% mark-up on all items sold to incarcerated people through its canteen service. Sixty-five percent!

A Top Ramen soup, which is an essential purchase for most incarcerated consumers, cost $0.25 two years ago. Now it’s $0.45. Other items (which mind you most of these items are not name brand; I mean, I doubt if non-incarcerated people have even heard of some of them) have just become unaffordable. 

Allow me to give you an example of my pre and post canteen habits.

Because naturally I’m what’s considered a “picky eater,” my steady diet for my entire incarceration has been soups, beans, chips, instant oatmeal, Honeybuns, cookies and crackers, along with essential hygiene items. This would on average cost me around $60 to $100 a month —supplemented greatly by family assistants because any job I may have had paid me anywhere from eight to 26 cents an hour ($20 to $30 a month). Some jobs didn’t pay me at all.

However, with prices being reasonably affordable at that time, financially this was fine for me because of family assistance.

Today, even with family assistance and the $36 a month I get paid for working at San Quentin News, purchasing power has been reduced to the necessities only. A case of 24 soups that cost $6 is now $10.80; a bag of spicy refried beans that cost $1.50 is now $2.40; off-brand Cheetos that cost $1.25 is now $2.20; Dial soap that cost $0.70 is now $1.70. You see where I’m going with this?

Now the detractors would say, “Well, don’t they give him three meals a day?” Yes, though truthfully, those meals wouldn’t sustain a child throughout the day. “Well, don’t they give him toilet paper and soap?” Yes, though usually it’s one roll a week that you most likely have to share with another grown man. This forces you to unnaturally train your body to defecate once a day, if not once every other day. That’s because, if you run out of toilet paper before the week is out, technically, they don’t have to give you anymore until the next week. 

The soap issue is even trickier. More times than not you’ll get one bar a week. A bar that’s smaller than the palm of your hand. If you’re in a prison that only allows showers three days a week you might be good. However, for the prison that allows showers every day, making it through the week with that small bar is impossible. 

This is why access to the commissary is a vital utility for the incarcerated. Without it, just an average quality of life would be unheard of.

Furthermore, California’s refusal to repeal its 13th Amendment to its Constitution, which allows slavery to persist for those serving time, keeps this problem alive. It allows California to pay the incarcerated sweatshop wages while charging us prices that even our families cannot afford in their daily lives. And in most cases they don’t – and technically don’t have to – pay us at all.

So …, how do I describe my canteen experience at San Quentin? 

Frugal. 

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Juan Haines, incarcerated 27 years, San Quentin State Prison*

Note: The maximum that a person can spend in the canteen per month is $240. My six months of spending for an incarcerated person is most likely above average. 

Consistent with all California prisons that I’ve been housed at, the incarcerated population is permitted to shop at the canteen once a month. The week of the month is determined on the last two digits of the person’s CDCR number. 

  • First draw is typically during the first week of the month for numbers 00-33. 
  • Second draw for 34-66, the second week of the month .
  • Third draw for 67-99 the third week of the month. 
  • The fourth week is typically reserved for inventory, stocking and other business. 

My last two [numbers] are 6-0. I am second draw. 

I also am able to shop for items, such as soap, toothpaste and grooming materials as well as food items and snacks through approved vendors who ship these items from their inventories to this prison. There is no limitation as to what a person may spend through the approved vendors, but the maximum weight of the package cannot exceed 30 pounds. An incarcerated person can receive a package, once per quarter, or four times a year. My first quarter and third quarter package orders are attached in addition, which total $353.68. 

My total expenditures of $1,094.93 in a six-month period is typical for me. 

Here is what I notice: The prices at the prison canteen are higher than those set by the vendors, but the prison canteens are more readily available because it is once a month. After COVID-19, the prices have significantly increased, see the attached SQN [San Quentin News] award- winning article by C.K. Gerhartsreiter. 

“This article is about inflation at the canteen for incarcerated persons. The key is that incarcerated persons are not isolated from the greater inflation caused by Covid-19 and its aftermath, however, the article shows that the inflation impact for incarcerated people is much much higher. On top of that our wages have not grown and are structurally prevented from growing.”

To combat the high prices in California’s prison canteens, a bill is working its way through the state’s legislators, SB 474 sponsored by Sen. Josh Becker. High prices affect me, because as a person who weighs less than 125 pounds, and with the food portions given in the chow hall quite small and the peanut butter and sugar-free jelly, (which is actually sweetened water) lunches are almost uneatable. 

Thus, for me, it is extremely difficult to survive in prison only on what the state provides for nourishment, which is why I spend so much at the canteen and approved vendors. In the end, I am noticing that I am spending more and getting less, which is well-documented in the SQN article.

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Anthony Tafoya, incarcerated 15 years, San Quentin State Prison

I am able to manage going to canteen because I have a wonderful support system and when I entered prison, I knew I would be coming for at least 15 years. I am grateful to have a family that helps me manage my comfort and wellbeing. 

Before the pandemic and markups at canteen, I was able to afford canteen and only spent between $120 and $150 a month. I was able to get everything I needed, for hygiene and sometimes an extra coaxial cable or batteries. But the amount of food and hygiene was drastically different than it is now.  I was able to have a second body wash, soap, toothpaste and dish/laundry detergent.

I am still able to afford canteen, thankfully, but I bring about half of what I used to acquire. I now have to rely on my quarterly packages to supplement my hygiene and detergents when I used to use those for snacks and extra food like rice and Kraft mac and cheese. I am not able to indulge in those luxuries anymore because the weight of the packages is limited to 30 pounds.

My average monthly canteen receipt is maxed out at $240 a month! Changes have been monthly increases on meat produce and rice/Top Ramen soups. The vegetables and nuts are not affordable anymore so I am not able to purchase them, which is unfortunate because those are the healthiest options they offer. The potato chips have almost doubled in price. Maybe a 35% increase? 

I usually get the following: 

  • Tortillas 
  • Mayonnaise
  • Shredded beef
  • Chicken
  • Mackerel
  • Rice
  • Top Ramen
  • Pickles
  • Refried beans
  • Potato chips
  • Cereals
  • Oatmeal
  • Peanut butter
  • Lemon juice
  • Coffee
  • Saltine crackers
  • Tuna
  • Cough drops (in here, the air is bad so you cough all the time)
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Cheese squeeze 
  • Coffee creamer
  • Some cookies and an ice cream 

As for the packages my family sends me, I order body wash, only two allowed per quarter (four packages a year), and I get toothpaste, deodorant (Secret is the only one that works on me) and lotions/facial moisturizer because in order to stay young, we MUST moisturize! The selection is better in the packages and for similar cost, you can get better products like St. Ives and Crest, instead of the off-brand toothpaste and soaps that canteen offers. 

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