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How inflation is hitting prison inmates

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the last year or so, you've probably felt the effects of inflation at the grocery store, in restaurants or even at the gas pump. But one particular group of people has been hit especially hard - the incarcerated. That's according to a recent analysis from The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom that covers the criminal justice system. For more on this, we've called Alex Arriaga, a reporter at The Marshall Project, who helped put this analysis together. Welcome.

ALEX ARRIAGA: Hi. Thank you so much.

CHANG: Thanks for being here. So, I mean, we should first note that it's pretty complicated to track these figures. Your reporting shows that each state handles commissary pricing and sourcing differently. But generally speaking, what were some of the major trends that you saw at prisons across the country?

ARRIAGA: Yes. So in my reporting, I requested commissary prices from all 50 departments of correction. And from the 26 that responded, you know, it was a range of the way that they all handle their pricing and the contracts that they have with vendors. But we did see a pattern of rising prices on items like peanut butter, ramen soup, soap and toothpaste - basic food and hygiene items that are really commonly purchased.

CHANG: Well, your reporting goes into some of the stark differences between what certain goods in prison cost versus what the cost is for those same goods on the outside. And we're talking about things like, you know, soap, toothpaste, food. Just give us an idea - like, how much more expensive are some of these items in prison?

ARRIAGA: Yeah. So we found that, for example, a jar of peanut butter, depending on where a person is incarcerated, now costs between 25% to 35% more. In some situations, something stood out where the price of peanut butter increased by $0.61 in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, while the portion size decreased.

CHANG: Oh.

ARRIAGA: And in some situations, we also saw where a state's price lists showed the retail price that they paid - that people incarcerated are paying more while the retail price stayed the same for the department.

CHANG: So I know that you talked to some people in prison who are facing these rising costs. Can you talk about what they told you about how these prices are affecting their living conditions?

ARRIAGA: So I reached out to incarcerated people in different states, who all expressed the emotional aspect of the struggle to pay for these basic items. So you get the price list - the menu for what you're going to be able to buy the next day. And you're looking at the prices, and they're higher than you budgeted for. And now you're going to go - instead of for the nutritional option, you're choosing cheese and crackers. Or, you know, you're going without deodorant. People are feeling more tense. And there's a certain sense of humor that people cope with as well. One person told me, you know, people were joking that they were going to trade sexual favors for some of these basic items.

CHANG: God. I mean, they say that jokingly. But do you think some of that is going on to supplement income?

ARRIAGA: Yeah. It's definitely kind of a coping mechanism to make a joke out of something like that, but we do hear that people do go to really desperate measures and drastic measures to be able to eat and have their basic needs met. And there are examples of violence and fights and people robbing one another for a meal.

CHANG: Mmm hmm. You know, I imagine that there are some people listening to us talk right now and are thinking to themselves, OK, fine, this is unfortunate. Inflation is affecting people in prisons. But inflation is affecting everybody, so of course we're seeing an effect inside the prison system. How do you respond to that sentiment?

ARRIAGA: I think there's a - maybe an attitude that what's going on in prisons is separate and other from the outside, and it's not affecting me. But we know, you know, from the pandemic that what happens inside of prisons and inside of jails - it all kind of feeds into everything else. We know that people in prison are working and manufacturing goods that we purchase, and that we know they're working in construction and agriculture. And we know that - you know, we know, based on the same families that are struggling to afford for basic food items on the outside, a lot of them are also covering the cost for rising food items on the inside of prisons. And they're struggling. They're - you know, do I send my loved one in prison enough money to pay for his meals, or do I put food on my own table?

CHANG: That is Alex Arriaga, a reporter at The Marshall Project. Thank you very much.

ARRIAGA: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "FIRE + WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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