To bring some clarity to this bread-and-butter issue for incarcerated people, we analyzed commissary sales reports from state prison systems in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington. We chose these states because we were able to easily obtain commissary data, but conveniently, these three states also represent a decent cross section of prison systems, encompassing a variety of sizes and different types of commissary management.
We found that incarcerated people in these states spent more on commissary than our previous research suggested, and most of that money goes to food and hygiene products. We also discovered that even in state-operated commissary systems, private commissary contractors are positioned to profit, blurring the line between state and private control.
Lastly, commissary prices represent a significant financial burden for people in prison, even when they are comparable to those found in the "free world." Yet despite charging seemingly "reasonable" prices, prison retailers are able to remain profitable, which raises serious concerns about new digital products sold at prices far in excess of market rates.