Highway Robbery

By Mike Powers

One of the most distressing things I’ve learned about the prison system as I worked my way through this maze was how unapologetic the TDCJ is in its prolific profiteering from the misery of others. It’s not enough that one of its citizens has committed a crime and faces incarceration and separation from friends and family for an extended period of time. TDCJ piles on by trying to turn a buck at every turn of the imprisonment, whether by using lowest-cost, lowest-quality when outfitting the prisoner, or whether by charging exorbitant prices for necessary items. As you continue reading, please remember, very few incarcerated citizens are “self-sufficient” in their finances. The vast majority depend upon the trifling gifts of already hard-pressed loved ones for the hygiene and commissary items they buy behind bars.

In another approach to explain just how big this problem is, I thought I’d kind of play “Price is Right’ and give you some comparisons of what a few items stocked in our commissary cost versus similar items at free-world stores. The Director of Commissary for the TDCJ has, in the Past, defended their pricing structure by trying to say that prices are set by comparing convenience store prices for similar items. In here, it’s impossibly difficult to get such prices, and even if I could, I personally don’t think that is the fair way to go. In any event, the prices I’m using in this article are taken from newspaper advertising for grocery stores. When similar items appeared in more than one ad, I used the higher price to give the TDCJ every benefit of the doubt.

The staple of almost all prison commissary diets is the humble Ramen noodle. Like college students all over America, we eat this pasta as the base for almost every meal eaten outside the dreaded chow hall. A package of Ramen noodles weighs in at three ounces. One package costs 30¢ in here, and comes only with a little flavoring packet. There weren’t any Ramen noodles in the flyers. When I last shopped for them, they could be had 10 for a dollar. That was a while back. But, the flyers did have generic macaroni and cheese. Not only did the mac cost only 6¢ an ounce, but it comes with a nice, fat packet of cheese. The whole box was 44¢ two for 88¢. This seems like a much better deal to me, especially since I have to buy a bottle of squeeze cheese at $1.50 to supplement the Ramen noodles. This wouldn’t be necessary if the cheese came in the mac & cheese box. Even if TDCJ sold the boxes for 50¢, instead of 44¢, this would be a better deal. As it stands, TDCJ is charging 100% more for an inferior product. Nice profit margins, buddy.

The store ads had Maxwell House coffee priced at 29¢ an ounce. The TDCJ sells a knock-off brand called Royal Pacific. It was price at 48¢ an ounce. That’s a whopping 60% markup for the most common drink outside of water that we prisoners typically drink, and that premium markup comes with a (trust me on this) marked drop in quality.

Unless you are an avid lover of fish, you pretty much have to jettison any thoughts of healthy eating out of the commissary. By way of illustration, I’ve named my favorite dish “The CARBurettor”. The total vegetable content might consist of one sliced pickled jalapeno. To make up for this, there are certain “fortified” foods I try to buy- like cereal. The store had a box of Froot Loops on sale for $2.50. In here, they cycle through a number of types of generic cereal, one of them being Fruity-0.s. Fruity-O’s cost $3.25. That amounts to a 30% markup for a generic brand versus a name brand.

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich turns out to be the most cost-competitive move. There was only a 50% markup on the jelly, while peanut butter was the ONLY item that the TDCJ sells at parity with free world prices at 10¢ an ounce. Alas, the sandwich is still only a pipedream, because two years ago, for unknown reasons, the TDCJ canceled all of its contracts with the bakeries and stopped carrying sliced bread, fried pies, pastries, and all other items acquired from them. Interestingly, soon after this, the TDCJ started selling boxes of pre-packaged pastries at a significantly higher price. I can only guess that they haven’t yet figured out a way to make their own sliced bread at extortionary pricing. In the meantime, I’ll put peanut butter and jelly on my crackers.

Let’s talk about crackers. Saltines were sold at 10¢ a package upon my arrival in the TDCJ in 2005. They soon went to 25¢, and today have ballooned to 35¢ a pack. I didn’t have any ads to compare prices. However, the TDCJ also offers round crackers, like Ritz. The store had Ritz crackers for $1.50 a box. The TDCJ has the generic for $1.75. Once again, an inferior product for a 16% markup. In case you haven’t caught on yet, I think we have an interesting business model here for any aspiring entrepreneurs- lower quality+higher price+captive market=$$$$$.

That high-salt, high-cal diet would be complete without a good, pink slice of SPAM? Can you believe we actually carry the name brand on this one? Yep! You can come to prison, and you still don’t have to miss out on your favorite fried-SPAM sandwich. Except that you can’t have a real sandwich, because of the whole bread thing I just told you about, and, of course, there are no fryers or microwaves on the cell blocks. You can heat it up in your hot pot, though.

Now, to enjoy this tasty treat, you’ll need to pay 46¢ an ounce. (The SPAM comes in a single-serving packet and costs $1.15.) A large can of SPAM can be had for 21¢ an ounce. That’s a whopping 119% markup, and this is surely the “best” deal we can get when it comes to meat packs. It’s also one of the ONLY deals we can get, since they’ve been out of chili for months now.

Okay, Johnny, let’s take our audience to the Showcase Showdown with a drop-the-mic duel to see which is the bigger rip-off: colas or bottled water. Let’s start with the Cokes.

All the Cokes on the unit that you buy in the commissary cost 55¢ and come in 12oz. cans. At the supermarkets, of course, you’re unlikely to buy singles. The cans are priced as part of larger packs. But, in several ads across multiple stores, the highest price I found for Coke (and I mean that in the most Texan kind of way, as a general catch-all for Coca-Colas, Dr. Peppers, and other drinks the Yankees call “pop”) was 27¢ a can. That’s a TDCJ markup of 49%. Surely we can find a better deal for stuff that comes free out of a spigot.

To really shed some light on this Showdown, you need a little background information. First, many of the TDCJ’s units are under high scrutiny from the courts and EPA officials for meteoric rates of poisons in their water supply, not the least of which are lead and cyanide. Admittedly, I wouldn’t put it past prison officials to deliberately poison the water, but in actuality, it seems the unusually high rates are being caused by nothing more sinister than an aging and un-maintained plumbing system in old buildings. In this light, bottled water becomes less a luxury, and more a necessity, wouldn’t you say? Under these conditions, so similar to those in Flint, Michigan, the TDCJ has graciously offered to provide free bottles of water to all who thirst. NOT! Bet you didn’t fall for that one. No, my friend, if you want a bottle of water, you’ll pay 25¢. That’s what a bottle of Coke cost when I was a lad, and it is 15¢ more than the most expensive bottles I could find advertised. That’s a markup of 150%! For WATER! H20 wins the Showdown as the biggest rip-off of the day, and maybe the whole century.

The second factor that makes this such a big deal is that, in case after case where the TDCJ is defending itself for keeping prisoners in cells well over 100 degrees day after day, they claim that we all have access to ice water in unlimited quantities, and they highly recommend that we drink at least two gallons a day. Yes, that’s right. They want me to increase my daily intake of water from an average of 2 quarts to 2 gallons of lead and cyanide-laced water. These guys are Wall Street geniuses. If anybody has ever thought of a better way to make money than “pay our outrageous prices or die”, I sure haven’t heard about it. There’s just one more question. Why in the hell hasn’t anyone among these monsters gone to jail for extortion or price gouging? Not to mention life-endangerment.

The fact is, this could be well-expected. After all, a monopoly is a monopoly no matter who is running it, and when the owner of the store has a gun trained on you and can name any price he wants, it becomes something more evil than that.

If there was any way around the company store, the whole charade might be less despicable, but as I’ve already pointed out, all the loopholes have been shut. Your Mama can’t bake you a cake and bring it in. Your Aunty can’t bake you some cookies and send them in a care package. Your Grammy can’t knit you some socks and pass them to the warden to give to you. The TDCJ has, over the years, managed to exclude all other forms of purchase. The Texas Legislature knows this, and I believe when they passed the bill requiring the TDCJ to allow third-party vendors access to inmates with family purchases, they were trying to alleviate this problem by thinking that Walmart or Amazon might now have a chance to send us TDCJ-approved goods at more reasonable prices. But the TDCJ wasn’t about to give up their hold on this lucrative, no-competition business, and they deliberately misinterpreted the legislative mandate to mean that they could develop a website that would offer to sell us the same, inferior-quality goods, not only at the same miserable prices, but with a premium for ordering it online It’s time for all this to stop. When crime and punishment becomes a revenue source for the government, what incentive do they have for fighting crime and keeping the rates low? I’ll give you a hint: big, fat goose egg. None. This isn’t conspiracy theory; it’s common sense. Don’t you believe that if the police ever got really serious about trying to make you stop speeding, they could do so with little effort? They don’t, because your fines pay for much of the municipal budget. The prison system has become the same thing on a much bigger scale. The Texas pen makes millions off the phone system. The Texas pen makes tens of millions off of the commissary. Don’t believe me?

Several years ago, we had a wonderful commissary manager named Ms. Gomez. She was considered wonderful because she would run that store like greased lightning. She was so fast that we often had “Five-item Spends” and “Coke and Ice-cream Runs”- days where every man on the unit with cash in his account could go in a single day and get a little treat or necessary item. The TDCJ loved her, too. She was the first manager on our unit of 1,380 men to hit the $1 MILLION dollar revenue mark. That’s just over $700 a man in a whole year. Friends, that’s not much to spend in here, assure you. Not when the only drinkable water on the unit comes at a 150% markup. Now, $700 a man times the 180,000 prisoners running around the TDCJ comes to $126 MILLION. Not bad for a year’s extortion. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

The only challenge the state faces in this scenario is just what percentage of the population they can lock up without overly-affecting the family’s ability to keep paying the $700+ dollars a year to their incarcerated loved one. Will your kid be the next one locked up?

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez