Claims about prison price-gouging decry $17 soup, $18 tampons

Cans of soup are lined up in the pantry as volunteers sort the items for delivery. (Tampa Bay Times file, 2010)
Cans of soup are lined up in the pantry as volunteers sort the items for delivery. (Tampa Bay Times file, 2010)

Advocates of Florida prisoners protested outside of the Florida Department of Corrections in Tallahassee on Jan. 16, demanding answers to questions of alleged price-gouging in prisons across the state.

Protesters from dozens of grassroot organizations held signs, demanded to meet with Corrections Secretary Julie Jones and shouted questions at guards standing on the other side of the entrance.

"Can someone talk to us about why tampons cost $18?" a protester asked, alluding to the high costs of canteens inside prisons.

The concerns aired at the rally sounded familiar to other claims made as part of Operation PUSH, a movement started by Florida prisoners fed up with their living conditions. Late last year, unnamed Florida prisoners anonymously released a statement that outlined plans for a work stoppage beginning on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In the statement, the prisoners demanded an end to "prison slavery" and price-gouging at canteens.

"One case of soup on the street cost $4. It costs us $17 on the inside. This is highway robbery without a gun," the website says.

PolitiFact Florida wanted to look into the claims of canteen price-gouging. Because we could not reach the prisoners or their representatives, we decided not to rate this on the Truth-O-Meter.

The Department of Corrections denies charging prisoners steep prices for soup and tampons. Although prison advocates in Florida could not verify these exact claims, reported incidents of price-gouging in prisons are nothing new.

"That’s not surprising at all to hear, and that’s something I’ve heard throughout my career," said Jackie Azis, an ACLU staff attorney who focuses on criminal justice issues and former public defender in Marion County. "And I don’t think it's exclusive to Florida."

Canteen costs

The Florida prison system uses an outside vendor, Trinity Services Group Inc., to provide statewide canteen operation services. The vendor works with the department’s internal canteen committee to ensure prices are set appropriately.

Each inmate has an inmate trust fund that family and friends can put money into. Inmates use their ID to purchase items at the canteen, and the amount is deducted from their fund. Once the money is spent, it is transferred to the prison’s general revenue fund.

To refute the prisoners’ claims, the Florida Department of Corrections sent PolitiFact Florida a canteen list for women and for men.

According to the listed soup items, prices range from 70 cents for a pouch of Cajun chicken ramen to $1.29 for a can of tomato soup.

Florida prisons don’t offer "cases" of soup, as the prisoner website claims. Three-packs of certain soups cost between $1.21 to $1.39.

The same DOC list shows a box of 10 Tampax tampons costs $4.02. That isn’t nearly as high as the $18 price tag that protesters claimed.

But it is a markup. A 54-count box of Tampax regular cardboard tampons, for example, costs $5.86 at Walmart online.

Advocates said they also hear stories about the prison phone systems. In 2016, a 15-minute phone call cost as much as $20 in some states.

In Florida, a 15-minute phone call in 2016 cost anywhere between $.90 and $8.40, depending on the facility, according to a list of prison phone rates compiled by ICS Advocates over the course of three weeks. (ICS stands for Inmate Calling Services.)

Ron McAndrew, a former Florida State Prison warden and a consultant, described most of the prices offered to prisoners as "fair."

With one exception: ramen noodles.

"The only item that I find overpriced is probably the most popular item that inmates purchase huge quantities of, and that’s the oriental-style dry soup noodles," McAndrew said.

A 3-ounce pack of Ramen costs prisoners $0.70. But inmates don’t have the benefit of bulk pricing. That means if they wanted to purchase 24 individual ramen noodles packs, the cost would be $16.80.  

A 12-pack of Maruchan ramen noodles purchased in-store at Walmart is $1.94. Multiply that by two, and the total is just under $4.

McAndrew wasn’t the only person to point this out.

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami-Beach, has interviewed more than 300 prisoners throughout the state. He said when he asks prisoners what’s one thing they would change about their situation, many of them point to the price of ramen.

Richardson said he is more focused on the treatment of prisoners in this legislative session but canteen prices are on his list of concerns to address in the future.