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The High Cost of Cheap Prisons


Tommaso Bardelli is a Senior Research Fellow at the NYU Prison Education Program Research Lab.

Zach Gillespie is an undergraduate student at NYU and a student researcher at the Prison Education Program Research Lab.

Thuy Linh Tu is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU.

Starting in the early 2000s, a bipartisan consensus emerged around the untenable price tag of mass imprisonment. After thirty years of relentless growth in US prison populations, liberal and conservative political elites agreed that the American carceral experiment had gone too far. By 2011, even Newt Gingrich, who once warned that the 1994 crime bill “would release over 10,000 drug dealers who are currently in prison,” began promoting the idea that “there is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population.” Gingrich was one of several high-profile Republicans who had joined Right on Crime, a national campaign supporting conservative criminal justice reforms. Marc Levin, Right on Crime’s founder, in recounting his conversion into the cause of criminal justice reform in 2005, credits a board member of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation for opening his eyes: “We are not getting a good return for our money out of our prisons,” the board member told Levin, complaining about the exorbitant costs to Texan taxpayers of the prison-building boom under Governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush.

In the spring of 2011, Right on Crime threw its support behind the NAACP’s campaign to end mass incarceration. That alliance, together with other initiatives to eliminate mandatory minimums and promote alternative-to-incarceration programs for non-violent offenders, elicited widespread hope for a bipartisan way out of mass incarceration. However, as Marie Gottschalk has recently pointed out, this new left-right consensus has so far produced underwhelming results. Penal optimists have celebrated the progressive decline in the number of people incarcerated, but that modest reduction – 11% between 2009 and 2019 – has hardly made a dent in the US prison population, which had grown by more than 700% over the previous three decades.

While it has done little to dismantle the carceral apparatus, the austerity-driven approach to criminal justice reform has opened the door to a slate of budget cuts and cost-saving measures. Since most correctional systems are reluctant to reduce prison beds or lay off staff, they are instead reducing basic services inside prisons and jails and shifting the cost for those services onto the incarcerated and their families. For instance, most states have slashed their budgets for prison food services. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which spent $8.96 per day to feed an incarcerated person in 1996, now spends $2.61. Over the same period, Florida cut its daily prison food budget from $5.65 per inmate all the way down to $2.02. As states reduced spending, a multibillion-dollar prison retail industry emerged to fill the gaps in public provisions. Most incarcerated individuals now purchase extra food, clothing, hygiene, and other goods from external vendors who charge exorbitant rates for phone calls, money transfers, and commissaries. More broadly, almost all states now charge pay-to-stay fees, forcing incarcerated people to pay for their own confinement.  

While the cost of living inside prisons and jails has, as a result, risen sharply, prison wages have remained essentially flat. As the pandemic-era inflation peaked in the summer of 2022, commissary stores in New York prisons charged $2.50 for a loaf of bread and $4 for 8oz of instant coffee. Yet, incarcerated workers in the state were still making an average wage of $0.40 per hour, the same rate prisoners earned in 1993, the last year New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision raised wages for incarcerated workers. Some states went even further, forcing people to work for no pay at all. In Texas – a state that Levin and his colleagues at Right on Crime celebrate as an example of “smart on crime” policies – incarcerated people are required to work for free, while being charged a $100 yearly copay to access medical care.

Between 2019 and 2021, we interviewed sixty formerly incarcerated New Yorkers, as well as some of their family members, about their experiences with commissary and other forms of consumer spending in prison. Most of them reported spending thousands of dollars every year, on basic necessities – such as food, hygiene supplies, and warm clothes for the winter – and on phone calls by Securus, the prison telecom giant controlling the New York market. Some of our interviewees had been incarcerated long enough to witness first-hand the progressive commercialization of the criminal legal system, and its effects on everyday life in prison.

When we met Jim, for instance, he had just returned home to the South Bronx, after spending more than thirty-five years in the New York prison system. In the mid-nineties, Jim worked as a cook at Sing Sing, a maximum-security facility on the east bank of the Hudson River. Back then, he recounted, prison food was still made “from scratch.” He remembers cooking baked ziti with ground beef, peppers and onions, and fresh garlic. He even had mozzarella cheese to top it off. Given what Jim had to stomach over the next twenty years, it is perhaps unsurprising that he recalled his baked ziti with such fondness.

Beginning in the early 2000s, in an effort to cut costs associated with correctional food services, New York moved food production to an industrial “cook-chill” facility attached to Mohawk Correctional Facility, in Oneida County. Nearly all meals served in New York prisons and county jails are now pre-cooked, packaged, and chilled at Mohawk, and distributed to individual facilities. Robert Schattinger – then the director of DOCCS food and nutritional services – beamed with pride when talking about the well-oiled machine of mass production that could feed New York’s incarcerated for $2.84 a day. Jim, on the other hand, recalled the decline in food quality as the process became more centralized:

Everything they served, they served in a bag. So, spaghetti, meat, whatever, it’s in a bag. So all cooks do now is to take the bags, and throw them in the hot water, heat that up, put it in the pan, and scoop it on your tray. So they are not cooking anything, nothing is cooked. Everything is boiled in water, steam heated like that, you know? The food is not cooked right because they rush it, and they are cooking for so many people.

As the “cook-chill” system took over prison food production, destroying taste and evaporating nutritional value, more people turned to food they purchased at commissary stores to enhance their diets, even as commissary items became more expensive. As Jim said, “everything went up, except for pay”:

[When I left prison] a can of tuna was costing you anywhere from $1.13 to $1.35. It used to cost 35 cents back in 1985. A box of chicken back in 1987 might have cost you maybe $1.50 or something like that. It’s costing you $5 now. But guys are still making $10-15 every other week. Going to the [commissary] store with $15.50 in the 2000s, you’d be lucky if you can buy a bag of coffee, some cream and some sugar, that’s about it.

Because the wages of incarcerated workers are insufficient to cover the costs of basic goods, families are left to foot the bill. Those who couldn’t count on steady financial support from the outside experienced severe deprivation, including hunger. As one participant said: “if you don’t have money in prison, you’re going to starve.” 

By the time we conducted our interviews in 2019, almost all of our participants had to rely on financial support from their loved ones on the outside to afford commissary food and to meet other needs. During the pandemic, those resources became scarcer and more difficult to access, as family members lost jobs, became ill, or lost touch. Some of our participants recounted how the prison economy shifted during the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, with more people turning to “hustling”—taking up sanctioned and unsanctioned informal trades—as family support dried up. Their comments make clear that economic fluctuations on the outside quickly reverberate inside the prison too.

With the Fed continuing to raise rates and layoffs inevitably on the horizon, families of incarcerated individuals, who are already financially stretched, will become even more economically vulnerable. How will they continue to bear the costs of remediating the worst effects of austerity? What will happen to their loved ones inside when they can’t? Facing an impossible dilemma, these families know all too well that, as Levin suggested, you can’t get “a good return on your money from prisons.” The carceral system has been drawing resources from vulnerable communities for decades, and they and their loved ones have gotten very little in return.