Financial Exploitation in Massachusetts Prisons

by Joy Davis

What you can do:

  • Donate to the Massachusetts Bail Fun:
    • The Massachusetts Bail Fund posts bail up to $5,000 in Essex, Worcester, and Suffolk counties of Massachusetts. The Bail Fund strives to diminish the amount of people forced into incarceration prior to a conviction due to financial inequity.

The average incarcerated individual in a Massachusetts State prison makes 14 cents an hour, a dollar a day.[1] Not only is this an illegal wage compared to the free-world, it pushes incarcerated people further into a financial disadvantage that many already face due to racial inequities. The legal minimum hourly wage in Massachusetts is $12.75, putting incarcerated workers at a 90% wage disadvantage. This exploitation is extrapolated by the inflated prices set by prisons for commissary goods. Prison commissary items vary from hygiene products, health products, food and even beauty supplies. However, the items available have predatory pricing that strip incarcerated individuals of the minimal money they earn through prison labor. 

Prisons across the United States are under fire for poor food quality as well as quantity. Privatized prisons often outsource their food services to private food service companies[2] that are paid a flat rate to provide meals to incarcerated individuals. These outsourced companies often provide less to each individual in order to gain more of a collective profit, and these choices result in small servings of food that is often rotten or lacking nutritional value. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incarcerated individuals are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a “food-related illness” than the general population. Due to these inhumane circumstances, incarcerated individuals are forced to rely on the commissary menu in order to avoid  a calorie deficit. On average, incarcerated individuals in Massachusetts State Prisons spend $940 on food and beverage annually.[2] Although the annual income for the average Massachusetts incarcerated worker is not officially published, it can be roughly estimated to be around $300. Earned income compensates for barely a third of the average incarcerated individuals annual commissary expenses. It is important to note that the Massachusetts commissary offers no fresh food, but rather an abundance of processed food. Most foods for sale have high sodium, high-fructose corn syrup content such as ramen noodles, candy bars, and other ready-to-go foods. 

Personal hygiene becomes a constant struggle to maintain as well. The average incarcerated individual spends 96 dollars on hygienic goods — the equivalent of what they make in three months from  prison labor. For further context, the average incarcerated individual must work 13 hours to pay for one month’s worth of dental floss.[2] Menstrual products prove to be an even more intensified burden. Massachusetts commissary charges $4.15 for two tampons.[3] If the average individual uses 20 tampons per period, then Massachusetts commissary charges around $40 per period cycle. The cost of these essential products exceeds the average incarcerated salary. Incarcerated individuals have reported resorting to cutting up rags or underwear and wrapping them in toilet paper to substitute for menstrual pads.[4] 

The prices of Prison Commissary goods force the continuation of an absolute and unbeatable power dynamic between incarcerated individuals and corporate greed. This intensifies the financial instability many incarcerated individuals face prior, during, and post incarceration due to structural inequality and systemic racism. Both structural inequality and systemic racism victimize the same individuals who are tracked into the criminal justice system. This cycle of disadvantages buys the United States further into financial dependency on disenfranchised individuals. The prison system was built to replace slavery, the orginial economic generater of the United States. The private prison system stands today in order to continue the legacy of slavery, and maintain financial control through mass-incarceration.