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Low Inflation? Not in Prison


Behind bars, the economy is strong.

The core inflation rate -- which strips out food and energy prices -- slid to an annual rate of 1.4% in the third quarter from 2% in the second quarter. Low inflation, courtesy of a weak economy, gives the Fed some latitude to keep interest rates down for an "extended period," in the words of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

However, for the roughly two million people currently incarcerated in US prisons, inflation is skyrocketing.

Bucks County, Pennsylvania, inmates Ryan Barrie and Ryan Kerwin have filed grievances citing a "price fixing/monopoly scandal" that revolves around the prices they paid for Chick-O-Stick candy at the prison commissary.

The peanut butter and coconut-flavored treats sold for $0.40 but the price was raised to "an unbelievable $0.90 overnight," according to the complaint.

Barrie and Kerwin are also upset about the cost of a three-ounce package of Maruchan Ramen noodle soup, which sells for $0.18 in other prisons but goes for $0.95 in their lockup.

In California, inmate James Godoy and a group of fellow prisoners recently hired attorney Herman Franck to file a complaint after the price of an eight-ounce jar of Folgers (SJM) instant coffee jumped from $6.40 to $7.50. Godoy claims that the prison system is price-gouging in order to help fund its operations.

But long-term "guests" of the great state of Florida seem to be the most outraged of all, over the cost of their beloved Honey Buns.

Old price? $0.66.

New Price? $0.99.

And, heaven help you if your tastes tend toward the exotic -- a chocolate Honey Bun now sets the incarcerated back $1.49, as opposed to the $0.61 they were accustomed to paying.

Now, the going rate for a pack of cigarettes in state lockups where smoking is still allowed is a whopping 25 Honey Buns -- enough to put a cramp in any jailhouse gourmand's style. Inmates have an average of $22 in their commissary accounts, which is deposited by family and friends on the outside, and augmented by income from each convict's work assignments, which pay between $0.12 and $0.14 an hour.

Should you be unlucky enough to land yourself in a federal pen, and you smoke, an 18-wheeler filled with Honey Buns won't help satisfy your nicotine jones. In 2004, smoking was banned in all federal institutions, and cigarettes, which were the de facto currency until then, were replaced by…are you ready for this?


Ed Bales, a prison consultant, says mackerel has become the currency of choice in smoke-free institutions.

A haircut goes for two "macks", which are small pouches of the fish, at about $1 each.
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