Inflation drove state prison commissary prices up 11% in the past year, but prison wages haven't risen in decades, and criminal justice reformers are demanding changes. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
The first time Paul Whittaker was incarcerated in New Jersey, he worked behind bars as a teacher’s assistant. He made $2 a day.
Last year, when a parole violation landed him back in prison, he was assigned the “job” of staying in his locked cell all day and keeping it clean. Daily pay: $1.20.
If inmate wages in New Jersey seem abysmal, their stagnation is even more so — they haven’t changed since 2001.
Inflation, though, has averaged 2% a year in the two decades since then, spiking to over 8% this summer. The state Department of Corrections, consequently, hiked prices in prison commissaries, the only place incarcerated people can buy basic necessities and food.
“If you don’t have any outside help, it’s hard,” said Whittaker, 36, of Neptune, who was released from prison in August. “You get paid once a month, and they take their taxes out too. So you really can’t afford anything.”
Prison justice advocates say the widening gulf between inmate wages and commissary prices reflects a culture of disregard that pervades many prisons.
“Having someone work for $2 a day is essentially slave labor,” said Jennifer Lewinski, a co-founder of the Asbury Park Transformative Justice Project. “There’s no humanity to it.”
Poverty pay, combined with rising commissary prices, offer people little opportunity to save money while behind bars, setting them up for failure when they leave prison with empty pockets, another reformer said.
“It makes people feel like their labor is worthless, like nothing they do has any value,” said Ron Pierce, a formerly incarcerated person who now works for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “And when you come home, you’re going to end up with a lower paying job — and you’re almost happy to accept it because you’re so used to making nothing.”
If commissary prices rise, so should prison wages, Pierce added.
“Commissary prices are like what things cost on the street, but prison wages are stuck in the ‘80s,” he said.
Department of Corrections spokesman Daniel Sperrazza said officials are considering bumping up prison wages — not because of inflation, but because the demand for specialized skills behind bars has grown. He didn’t have a timeline for when a pay bump might happen.
Sperrazza blamed increased supply costs for the average price of commissary items climbing 11% over last year. But he said the department “continues to work to make items affordable and accessible to the incarcerated population.”
Attorney Terry Schuster, who was appointed last spring as the state’s corrections ombudsperson, said his office will monitor the issue over the coming year.
“Paying people for their labor is not just about being able to buy snacks and radios. It’s an incentive to use their time in prison to build job skills, maintain a work routine, pay off their debts, and stay out of trouble,” Schuster said. “Incentives are one of the strongest tools the state has to manage the behavior and progress of people held in custody.”
Rising commissary costs
Prisons provide the barest essentials like toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, soap, and prison khakis, but inmates have to buy other basic necessities, like shampoo, toothpaste, and t-shirts.
The commissary is where they shop — and it’s a big business.
Inmates spent about $63.6 million at commissaries in the state’s nine adult prisons over the past five years, averaging about $12.7 million a year, department data shows. With more than 10,000 adults now in state prisons, that averages out to about $1,200 in spending per year per inmate.
Many inmates rely on the commissary to supplement prison meals, which can be unhealthy. Others need it to find personal-care items prisons don’t provide.
The most popular items in New Jersey state prisons are mackerel in snack pouches, bottled water, instant coffee, and rice, products that range in price from 21 cents (water) to $3.45 (coffee). The priciest of commissaries’ most in-demand items is a 15-inch Clear Tunes TV, which sells for $256. Sperrazza said he could not track how commissary prices have risen over time.
Sperrazza said commissary revenue is used to cover their operational costs, such as salaries and benefits for storekeepers and purchasing items.
Any year-end surplus goes into a “welfare fund,” which supports amenities for inmates such as incentive meals for writing contests, movies and popcorn for units with the fewest disciplinary charges, ice machines, law library resources, and Mother’s Day flowers for visitors, Sperrazza said.
Department officials have tried to offset inflationary increases by giving inmates commissary credits as an incentive to get COVID-19 vaccines, he added.
Reformers say that’s not enough.
“If you want to say that ramen noodles is a luxury they have to buy themselves, then OK. But they should get everything that they need – toothpaste, soap, shampoo, underwear, socks, bare-minimum shit that you need to survive as a human,” Lewinski said.
Instead, many people start their prison sentences already in debt, Whittaker said.
“When you first go down to state, they give you a bunch of stuff — they call it a ‘new man package’ with like socks, boxers, a towel, stuff to write your family, and stuff like that. But they charge you like $20 or $25 for it. So when you start, you owe them money — and they do that every time you move to another facility,” Whittaker said.
You can refuse it, Whittaker said, but then “you won’t have anything to wash up with or anything.”
Sperrazza said the “new man box” is optional for purchase and costs $15.67. It contains commonly used items, like toothpaste, a security razor, and roll-on deodorant, as well as other items like shower shoes, stamps, a pen, and envelopes that aren’t among the essentials prisons give new inmates for free, he added.
People serving time in New Jersey prisons have to work, with few exceptions, and face disciplinary charges for refusing a work assignment.
Jobs run the gamut from kitchen and laundry workers to medical porters and paralegals. Pay ranges from $1 to $7 a day, but most positions pay $1 to $3 a day, with paraprofessional and skilled-trades jobs topping the pay scale, according to Department of Corrections data.
Pierce, now 64, held all sorts of positions in his 30 years behind bars. He first worked as a “runner” in 1987 at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, hauling hot water from the showers to cells in the west compound, which had no hot water. He later worked as a paralegal, a maintenance worker, and a recreation department supervisor.
“The most I ever made was $4 a day,” said Pierce, who was released in 2016.
He doesn’t recall inmate wages ever rising while he was behind bars. Instead, he remembers his pay getting slashed in 2001, when the department began withholding fines and fees from inmate wages and reducing the number of payable days from seven to five a week.
“I still had to work seven days. But what they told me is that I didn’t need to work the weekends — I just ‘chose’ to work,” he said.
Sperrazza said the department’s last “revision to the pay scale” was in 2001, but he acknowledged he couldn’t say for sure that it was an increase, nor pinpoint the last pay raise for incarcerated people.
Prisons rely on the labor of people incarcerated there, Pierce said. If the cost of living behind bars rises, then so should prison wages — just as they do on the outside, he added.
“The prisons probably can’t run if the people in prison decided not to work and just took a break,” he said. “Nothing works without the incarcerated population — and yet the incarcerated population is being exploited for their labor.”
When Pierce left prison in 2016, he had just $208 in his pocket.
“That’s all I was able to save — in 30 years,” he said.
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