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How We Built a Database of Prison Commissary Prices

Inside The Appeal’s 9-month investigation.

Pages of commissary lists are layered on top of each other in front of a black background
Tara Francis Chan

The Appeal has published the first national database of prison commissary lists. This project took nine months to execute and includes prices from 46 U.S. states. 

The Appeal also published an accompanying feature exploring the exploitative and inconsistent pricing systems of prison commissaries, including maps and visualizations that illustrate how prices differ across the country. It also highlighted extreme examples of markups and costs compared to community prices.

What’s in the Database

The database is broken up into three searchable sections:

  1. Commissary Lists: This tab includes links to 46 states’ commissary lists. Some states have one centralized list while others have different commissary lists for each prison and some have different lists for particular types of housing units. 
  2. Summary Data: This tab summarizes, by state, the cost of basic food, hygiene, and other items selected by The Appeal. When the price of an item varied depending on the prison or housing unit, a range is included to show the lowest and highest prices the item was sold for in the state. 
  3. Detailed Price Information: This tab includes all of the prices The Appeal analyzed in its reporting. The database contains price data for 24 different food, hygiene, and religious products, broken down by prison and, when possible, housing unit. This section allows readers to see the availability and prices of items at individual facilities, and the variation within a state. The Appeal will continue updating this section with more products into the future. 

How We Obtained the Commissary Lists

Beginning in July 2023, The Appeal requested copies of prison commissary price lists and vendor contracts from all state prison systems. In total, 46 state prison systems provided The Appeal with commissary lists. These records do not necessarily include commissary prices for privately operated prisons in these states.

These requests produced more than 10,000 pages of records, including the commissary lists published in the database. Many prisons regularly update commissary inventories and prices, so the prices and products in the database may not be identical to those currently offered in a facility.

How We Chose Which Items to Include

The inconsistency of commissary offerings makes it difficult to compare specific products across states. Each state may choose to carry a different size or brand of toothpaste, for example, which could affect the price. Additionally, some states do not have a centralized commissary list, meaning each prison within the state may offer different prices for products.

To refine the scope of the project, The Appeal selected products from three categories—food, personal care/hygiene, and religious items—and chose comparable items that were available in many different prisons. 

How We Compared Prices Across States

To create the fairest price comparison across prisons, The Appeal conducted two key analyses.

For each product (e.g toothpaste) we first chose the lowest price offered at any commissary in each state, even if it wasn’t available at all facilities in the state. We did not include prices for incarcerated people considered indigent because each state has different criteria and policies related to indigency.

However, the cheapest option isn’t always the best. Many states sell single servings of goods like toothpaste or deodorant at lower prices, but they often cost more in the long run than larger packages. Additionally, prices are often low precisely because they are less desirable versions of a product than more expensive brand-name alternatives.  

To address this, The Appeal compared a widely available brand of each product (e.g. Colgate toothpaste instead of “toothpaste red gel”) in order to contextualize how prices for incarcerated people compare to what readers might pay in the community. 

To analyze soap prices in each state, for instance, we examined the product with the lowest price, as well as a brand-name offering, like Ivory or Dove. 

This process was difficult even for popular items like ramen. Prices often differed depending on the flavor, the individual prison unit, or the facility. Not all states sell the same brand of ramen and some don’t specify what brand they sell. Ultimately, The Appeal chose to compare the lowest price for a single packet of ramen and to specify the brand and flavor when known.

Why Some States are Missing

Four states are not included in the database. The Appeal filed public records requests for Louisiana and New York’s commissary lists in July 2023 and has still not received them. Tennessee and Alabama will only fill public records requests submitted by residents of those states. 

With each request, The Appeal asked for a waiver of all associated fees, as the information was related to a newsgathering purpose. Of the 46 states that provided documents, only the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) required payment. 

Senior Reporter Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg filed a public records request with MDOC for medical, healthcare, and commissary contracts, as well as commissary lists. Despite her request for notification if they required payment, the MDOC sent invoices amounting to nearly $500 to fulfill the request—an amount we could not afford to pay—and followed with past due notices when payment wasn’t received. 

MDOC charged Weill-Greenberg about $5 for “labor fees” related to the request for the commissary list and about $486 for redactions of the medical services contract with VitalCore. 

Separately, on August 29, 2023, the state’s commissary vendor, Premier Supply Link, LLC, filed a petition in response to The Appeal’s public records request, claiming in court that the MDOC contract contained confidential information and that its disclosure would cause the company “irreparable harm.” The company’s petition named The Appeal’s reporter in her personal capacity. 

Attorney John Sneed of Wise Carter agreed to represent The Appeal’s reporter pro bono. Facing the prospect of a costly and likely unsuccessful legal battle, The Appeal agreed to withdraw the records request in exchange for Weill-Greenberg’s removal from the petition. Weill-Greenberg filed a second records request for the commissary list only which was provided at no cost.

In response to a request for comment on the invoices, MDOC wrote in an email to The Appeal: “Invoices are our common practice as notification of what the cost would be to generate the information requested but you are under no obligation to pay IF you do not want to proceed.” 

Future of the Database

This database was published on April 17, 2024. It will continue to be updated as The Appeal receives additional and updated commissary lists.