Gavin Newsom Can Sign a Bill to End Price-Gouging in California Prisons

California prison canteens currently sell essential items—such as snacks and medication—at a markup of between 65 and 200 percent.


With just one signature, California Governor Gavin Newsom can significantly curtail the state’s long-standing practice of price-gouging imprisoned people for vital items like toothbrushes or deodorant.

Last week, the Basic Affordable Supplies for Incarcerated Californians Act, or the BASIC Act, overwhelmingly passed the state Senate and Assembly. The bill is now with the governor, who has until October 14 to sign it.

If signed into law, the BASIC Act would prohibit commissaries from charging more than a 35 percent markup on what they paid to the vendor that supplied the items. The cap would remain in place from January 1, 2024 until January 1, 2028. At that time, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary would set commissary prices.

“We have to end the egregious and cruel markups on food and hygiene items that are sold in the prisons,” California state Senator Josh Becker, who introduced the bill, told The Appeal.

California prison commissaries typically sell items—including snacks and medication—at a markup of between 65 and 200 percent, according to Becker’s office.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a co-sponsor of the BASIC Act, sent out an action alert Friday urging California residents to contact Newsom and ask him to sign the bill.

Commissaries are “a critical resource for incarcerated people who rely on these purchases of food and hygiene supplies to survive their incarceration,” Isa Borgeson, a campaign manager at the Ella Baker Center, said in an email to The Appeal. “Reducing markups on these essential goods will relieve the economic burden on Black and brown low-income families across the state.”

In a statement emailed to The Appeal, the governor’s office said that, as “with all measures that reach the Governor’s desk, the bill will be evaluated on its merits.”

Becker said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the bill’s chances. Last year, Newsom signed legislation that made all calls to and from people incarcerated in state prisons free, although there are still price tags on other forms of communication. Becker said that after he helped pass legislation that made phone calls free, the next logical step was targeting high commissary costs.

“We want people to be set up for successful reentry and we know that forcing families to go into debt, either for calls or for canteen, does not set up incarcerated people or their families for successful reentry,” he said.

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Prison stores, known as commissaries or canteens, are either operated by state officials or contracted private companies. The stores sell a variety of items, including ready-to-eat meals, snacks, over-the-counter medications, toilet paper, shoes, and clothing.

Advocates say price gouging at prison stores is a widespread and particularly odious practice. The customers are captive and earn pennies an hour if they are able to work at all. Typically, the more miserable the conditions inside a prison, the higher the profits. This summer in Texas, for instance, where most people live in cells that lack air conditioning, the price of bottled water increased by 50 percent.

There is little oversight on commissaries, but some jurisdictions have successfully reined in prices. In 2019, San Francisco eliminated markups in its county jail. This past June, Nevada’s governor signed a bill prohibiting prisons from marking up hygiene items, although the initial version of the legislation set a 5 percent cap on mark-ups for all products. And, in July, Massachusetts lawmakers sent the governor a budget that sets a 3 percent cap on markups and directs commissaries to carry gender-affirming items.

In California, incarcerated workers can earn as little as eight cents an hour, but often take home even less. Half of their pay is garnished to pay restitution costs ordered by the court. For instance, assuming a person has restitution costs, it would take 150 hours of labor at eight cents an hour to afford a $6 tube of toothpaste sold at the California State Prison—Corcoran’s canteen.

With wages so low, many people rely on their families for support. But these costs exacerbate an already tenuous financial situation for many families, Becker said.

“The majority of the cost is shouldered by low-income, often women of color who’ve lost breadwinners,” he said.

Before a family’s money ever reaches a loved one, private and public entities take a cut. In California, ViaPath, the for-profit corrections telecoms giant formerly known as GTL, charges between $3.95 and $7.95 per deposit into a person’s account. And, as with wages, the state can siphon off half of any deposit to pay off an incarcerated person’s debts.

Community organizer Sandra Johnson said that when she went to prison, her mother sent her money so she could afford basic necessities. Her mother had already been sending money to Johnson’s incarcerated brother for years.

“[My mother] was squeezing money from her already low income to make sure that me and my brother had deodorant to put on, had toothpaste,” she said.

Johnson is an organizer at the nonprofit criminal justice reform group Legal Aid at Work, a co-sponsor of the BASIC Act.

CDCR policy requires that all incarcerated people “shall be provided products for washing hands, bathing, oral hygiene, and other personal hygiene, including but not limited to: soap, toothpaste or tooth powder, toothbrush, and toilet paper.” These items are
“usually replaced and replenished every week, or upon request,” CDCR told The Appeal in an email.

However, advocates say that the items provided by the prison aren’t enough for people to maintain proper hygiene.

Johnson said shopping at the canteen is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. In addition to hygiene items, she said people would go hungry without purchasing food from the canteen.
Johnson’s mother passed away a few years ago. With her brother still incarcerated, the responsibility to support him fell on her even as she was trying to rebuild her own life.

“I picked up right where my mother left off,” she said. “I love my brother. Like my mother loved us. Now here I am trying to get my life together and finding work and sending him a little bit of money.”

The BASIC Act, she said, would have a “huge” impact on the families in California with incarcerated loved ones.

“This is a no-brainer bill,” said Johnson. “You are running the prison canteen on the backs of people that are already living from paycheck to paycheck.”

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