Inflation Is Putting Food Out of Reach in New York Prisons

The confluence of rising commissary prices, stagnant wages, and a package ban are making basic items inaccessible.

Freddy Medina   ·   April 11, 2023
At Attica Correctional Facility, the price of the average staple food and snack increased by over 70 percent between December 2021 and November 2022. | Illustration: Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

IN A SMALL ROOM in the sub-basement of Fishkill Correctional Facility this past summer, about 20 incarcerated individuals sat quietly and closely together, waiting for their turn at the prison’s commissary store. The pipes of the building’s plumbing system lined the ceiling like a maze above their heads, sweating with condensation. The heat was suffocating. This reporter was there with them, serving the last few months of his prison sentence before he was released in September.

Sixty-year-old Manolo Abreu stood at one of the commissary windows, with sweat stains on his white T-shirt. The civilian worker behind the register was asking him to return most of the items she had just handed him. The prices had increased to a point that he could no longer afford the few items — food staples like coffee, beans, and chicken — he regularly purchased.

In his 28 years of incarceration, Abreu told New York Focus, he had never experienced such dramatic price increases in such a short amount of time. Though he rarely received financial support from family or friends, he had always been able to afford what he needed by strategically budgeting the roughly $6 he makes every two weeks as a house porter for necessities.

As inflation reached a 40-year high in 2022, New Yorkers felt the squeeze when paying for fuel, housing, food, and more. Food pantries across the state struggled to meet the demand for support as more and more families found it difficult to put food on the table.

For the more than 34,000 people in the state’s prisons, commissary prices can make it impossible to afford the things that make prison bearable: a decent meal or basic hygienic necessities. As support networks of friends and families struggle financially and have less to share, it gets harder.

Amid these rising costs and low wages, a state-wide package ban implemented in all New York prisons last year created another hurdle. The policy allows each incarcerated person to receive just two personal packages each year and requires the use of expensive “approved vendors.”

To put it plainly, people in the prisons are hungry.

Sumeet Sharma, Correctional Association of New York

Sumeet Sharma, director of monitoring and advocacy at the Correctional Association of New York, said the confluence of these issues is a frequent topic among the incarcerated people he speaks to during prison monitoring visits across the state.

“They’re not being paid enough to be able to buy food, they’re now prohibited from people sending them food in packages, and the wages in New York state prisons are among the lowest in the country,” Sharma said. “To put it plainly, people in the prisons are hungry.”

Inside Inflation

The price of food at home for Americans rose 11.8 percent over the course of 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many incarcerated New Yorkers faced an even steeper hike in prices.

At Attica Correctional Facility, prices of staple foods and snacks increased between 39 and 333 percent between December 2021 and November 2022, according to commissary buy sheets obtained and analyzed by New York Focus. Across an 18-item sample of items for sale in Attica’s commissary, creamy peanut butter had the median price increase — from $1.40 to $2.40, or 71 percent.

Similar price increases were reflected on buy sheets obtained from Sing Sing and Fishkill prisons.

For many incarcerated people, food received in packages and purchased at the commissary isn’t just a nice addition to their meals in the prison cafeteria; it’s an essential part of getting enough to eat. Mess hall portions are often described as small and inadequate. Food such as soy burgers, meat loaf, and turkey patties are often served cold and stale. Fabian Romaine, incarcerated at Fishkill, described eating a Salisbury steak: It has as much nutritional value as me chewing on my shoe.

“As with other goods and services available both inside and outside of correctional facilities, commissary items and vendors that sell them are unfortunately subject to inflationary pressures that have affected the economy over the past several months,” a prison department spokesperson told New York Focus. “[The department] sells commissary items for the same price at which they are procured under state law and does not charge incarcerated individuals sales tax on any commissary items.”

Even when commissary customers have money in their accounts, they often still can’t get what they need. Multiple incarcerated people described a failure to restock popular items and limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. Jose Llaca, who is incarcerated at Sing Sing, told New York Focus that “an average of 50 items are out of stock on a regular basis.”

Llaca’s complaint is reflected in prison monitoring reports from the Correctional Association’s latest monitoring visit to Albion, a medium security women’s prison, during which they interviewed 85 incarcerated people. One out of five said the commissary was adequately stocked on a regular basis. Fresh fruits and vegetables sold out quickly, leaving only less healthy options behind.

It has as much nutritional value as me chewing on my shoe.

Fabian Romaine, Fishkill Correctional Facility

The high prices are putting a further strain on family members struggling to meet their own needs. Lisa Morales, a beautician at a salon in the Bronx and the mother of a young man who is currently incarcerated at Fishkill, told New York Focus she doesnt know if she can continue to support her son much longer.

I was out of work until late last year, and now with gas and food prices so high, I barely have the money to cover my rent at the end of the month,” she said. “But being able to put some money in his books is the only thing that gives me satisfaction. … As long as I know I did my best so that my son can eat a couple of good meals, I feel better about myself.

Stagnant Wages

In recognition of rising commissary prices, the prison agency said it increased the maximum amount people are allowed to spend, per buy, for food items from $75 to $90. But that doesn’t help incarcerated people who can’t afford to pay more — especially as wages for prison work have remained stagnant.

The highest-paying and most desirable prison jobs include working for Corcraft, the state’s main industrial contractor, as well as asbestos cleaning and food handling. Those jobs can pay between 16 and 65 cents per hour. The jobs in highest demand are still paying what many advocates are describing as “slave wages.”

Wages are significantly lower for everyone else. The skilled labor jobs that keep the prisons functioning — plumbers, electricians, construction workers, painters, custodians, and program facilitators — can pay as little as 10 cents an hour.

Robert Golub, a 54-year-old man incarcerated for 33 years, is a clerk for Bard College at Fishkill Correctional Facility. He has earned about $12 every two weeks for the past several years. But with rising commissary costs, Golub tells New York Focus he has to choose less nutritious, cheaper items.

There is some movement in Albany toward raising prison wages and improving labor conditions, including a bill sponsored by state Senator Zellnor Myrie that would mandate a minimum prison wage for incarcerated people.

Golub said he isn’t optimistic about those efforts’ chances. I dont think they will do it on their own volition, he said. The spark is gonna have to come from here.

No More Packages From Home

Amid the surging commissary prices, another financial burden has hit mothers like Lisa Morales. The prison department no longer allows visitors to bring packages to correctional facilities or loved ones to mail them from home. Instead, all packages must now be purchased and ordered from a pre-approved third-party vendor. But products from those approved vendors can be priced up to three times higher than in local markets.

Why do I have to pay so much for food now if I can buy it on sale in the local market?asked Anne, the wife of another man incarcerated at Fishkill.

Llaca echoed that concern. “Many of our families live on fixed incomes and it has become very difficult and in some cases impossible to be able to purchase foodstuff from these so expensive catalogs,” he wrote in a letter to New York Focus.

The prison agency claims the package ban is needed to reduce contraband like drugs into prisons via package rooms. A spokesperson said that in 2022, the agency recovered 112 contraband items in packages before the policy was implemented, and 30 contraband items after.

Beyond raising costs for families, the ban also eliminates the personal touch of a care package from home, with hand-picked items inside.

Sometimes,” Anne said, “I would take half an hour at the market just picking out the perfect mango for my husband.

But the packages would frequently sit unopened for days awaiting inspection. By the time they reached their recipient, fresh food had often perished.

Rebecca McCray contributed reporting.

Freddy Medina is a writer currently incarcerated inside Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York. A first generation Dominican American born in New York City, he rediscovered his lost passion for writing while incarcerated and went on to earn his associates and bachelors… more
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