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

By Allison Graves | PolitiFact Florida staff writer
Published: January 22, 2018 Updated: January 22, 2018 at 03:18 PM
Cans of soup are lined up. (Times files, 2010)

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

Protesters from dozens of grass roots 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 prices at 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, Florida prisoners anonymously released a statement that outlined plans for a work stoppage beginning on Dr. 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.

"Thatís not surprising at all to hear, and thatís something Iíve heard throughout my career," said Jackie Azis, an ACLU staff attorney who focuses on criminal justice issues and a former public defender in Marion County. "And I donít think itís exclusive to Florida."

The Florida prison system uses an outside vendor, Trinity Services Group Inc., to provide statewide canteen operation services. The vendor works with the departmentís 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 prisonís general revenue fund.

To refute the prisonersí 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 do not offer "cases" of soup, as the prisoner website claims. Three-packs of certain soups cost between $1.21 to $1.39.

The same Department of Corrections list shows a box of 10 Tampax tampons costs $4.02. That isnít 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 more often hear complaints 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 cents 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 thatís the oriental-style dry soup noodles," McAndrew said.

A 3-ounce pack of Ramen costs prisoners 70 cents. But inmates donít 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 wasnít 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 whatís 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.

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