Savvy Shabazz sets aside money every month for loved ones serving time, so they can buy toothpaste, soap, food and other essentials from prison commissaries.
Shabazz, founder of the Life Coach Each One Teach One Reentry Fellowship and a formerly incarcerated man, remembers the frustration of lacking basic goods behind bars and the burden of paying more at prison stores than he would on the outside.
“[Lacking essentials] can cause a lot of frustration, it can cause a lot of tension,” Shabazz said. “One thing that I do understand from my previous incarceration is that if you put people’s backs against the wall, they’ll come out fighting.”
He knows the incarcerated people he supports need even more help now, because shopping at the Kentucky Department of Corrections just got a lot more expensive.
Keefe Group, the private contractor operating prison commissaries in Kentucky, increased prices by 7.2% on July 1 with approval from the corrections department. Keefe did not respond to requests for comment. But a corrections department spokesperson attributed the price jump to inflation, which hit 9.1% in June.
“This increase in canteen prices is not unlike the price increases currently experienced by the general public in purchasing food and hygiene items,” department spokesperson Katherine Williams wrote in an email.
The corrections department splits revenue from commissary sales with Keefe, earning 22% commission on sales from prison stores (known as canteens) and vending sales, plus 15% on visitor area vending sales, according to a copy of the state’s contract with the Keefe that KyCIR obtained via records requests.
The state awarded Keefe the contract in 2014 on a two-year term and has renewed the agreement three times since then. Keefe, which serves over 650,000 incarcerated people weekly across more than a dozen states, according to their website, receives exclusive rights to sell within Kentucky prisons and does not receive money directly from the corrections department under the contract. The contract was set to expire on July 28.
Williams said the contract has been extended until September 30 to give the corrections department time to award a new one.
The recent increase is the biggest price hike since the agreement began and comes as an addendum to the company’s deal with Kentucky signed on June 22 by correctional officials. Commissary prices went up by 2% in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Prison commissary goods are typically marked up compared to retail store prices. A 3-ounce Speed Stick deodorant costs $1.98 at the Louisville Walmart Supercenter but $4.52 at prison stores. Now, after the price increase in July, the same deodorant stick costs $4.84 – or 32 cents more.
A stick of deodorant for $4.84 may not sound like much, but to some incarcerated people making 48 cents a day, that’s worth as much as 40 hours of prison labor. Shabazz said incarcerated people have few options to adjust to price increases.
“It's hard enough dealing with inflation when you're not incarcerated, but to be incarcerated–you're limited,” Shabazz said. “We have a lot of different ways to manage: we can go get an extra job, we can go pick up some extra hours. People who are incarcerated, they can't do that.”
When wages aren't enough, and when loved ones can't help, incarcerated people who lack money for commissary are often forced to either find another way to come up with the funds or go without.
A 2018 article published in Qualitative Sociology titled “Ramen Politics: Informal Money and Logics of Resistance in the Contemporary American Prison” found packets of ramen has become an inter-prison currency within some facilities. Some people “literally sell the clothes off their backs” for ramen, while others incurred debt from other incarcerated people with a personal stock.
Shabazz said some incarcerated people resort to crime in order to get what they need to survive, or protect what little they already have.
Many incarcerated people do hold jobs at the Department of Corrections, but Shabazz said prison wages are not enough for incarcerated people to support themselves. Incarcerated workers can make anywhere between 48 cents to $2.42 a day, depending on the specific job and if they’re also receiving time credit off their sentences for working. People getting time off their sentences in exchange for work earn less.
Shabazz recalled working a construction job in prison, where he and others were tasked with building renovations for a national organization for 63 cents a day.
“It was harsh temperatures. I worked there during the winter, I worked there during the summer,” Shabazz said. “And for the individuals that we worked with that were coming in as contractors, they were getting paid $25 or $30 per hour.”
In 2020, roughly 28% of Kentucky’s prison population, 3,566 people, worked an excess of 5.5 million hours in prison labor, according to the Department of Corrections 2020 Annual Report.
The workers received just over $570,524 in compensation, while the counties that used them saved more than $40 million in estimated labor costs, because the workers are paid so little.
Meanwhile, more than $9.1 million was spent on commissary items in Kentucky prisons between January and July alone, calculated by adding the totals of corrections department sales reports.
Kentucky law requires all canteen commissions be used “exclusively for the benefit of the inmates of the department.” In 2020, roughly $1.7 million in commissary revenue was spent on life skills training and reentry programs, according to the corrections department.
KyCIR requested a breakdown of commissary revenue and how it was spent but did not receive it in time for publication.
Mike Wessler, communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice public policy think tank, said the amount spent on food, medicine and hygiene items shows many prisons are not meeting the basic needs of incarcerated people.
He wrote in an email that by providing meals that lack variety and nutritional value, the corrections department forces people to rely on overpriced commissary food to survive. Various research studies, journal articles, and lawsuits filed over the years have highlighted concerns about the quality and nutritional value of prison food.
Wessler argued that while failing to meet incarcerated peoples’ nutritional needs is bad, allowing a private corporation to profit off incarcerated people is worse. And, he added, “the paltry wages incarcerated people are paid make this system even more troubling.”
“When you earn pennies an hour doing work that is often forced,” he wrote, “it can literally take days to afford something as simple as a jar of peanut butter.”
Shabazz said while some commissary funds go to help incarcerated people, the department has not made reentry and rehabilitation a priority and allowed funding to flow into private pockets.
“The DOC needs to take responsibility for releasing people into their families and communities unprepared,” Shabazz said.
Update: This story has been updated to include a response from the Department of Corrections received after the story published.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly states that Savvy Shabazz was incarcerated from 2002 to 2007. He was incarcerated from 2003 and 2007 and again from 2009 to 2011.