Maricopa County jail canteens rips off the inmates and their families

  Sheriff Joe's jail canteen is a real rip-off for the prisoners and their families. It made $11 million this year. Sheriff Joe gouges the inmates $1 for a pack of ramen that can usually be bought for a dime at Bashas on sale. Sheriff Joe chares $2.30 for a 12 minute LOCAL, thats local, not long distance call. What a rip off 19 cents a minute making a LOCAL call in Sheriff Joe's gulag!!

[I do not approve of the use of the term "gulag" to describe the Maricopa County Jail. I would not insult the Soviet gulag in that way. --Kevin Walsh]

The article didn't say this but when the inmates order stuff they are not told the price. They only find out how much something cost AFTER they have ordered it.


Business is booming at county jail canteens

Christina Leonard
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 31, 2005 12:00 AM

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office raked in more than $11 million during the past year from inmates' phone calls and commissary goods.

That's about double the amount collected five years ago.

In fact, business has gone so well, sheriff's officials say they used more than $5 million of that money to provide inmate programs and services this year. And they still have another $4.3 million left over.

All the money collected from phone calls and canteen sales goes into an "Inmate Services Fund," which is supposed to benefit inmates. Inmate advocates and jail officials believe the programs make for better-adjusted people once they get out of jail - and that, in turn, helps prevent them from returning.

Wanted: more classes
Although Sheriff Joe Arpaio said he wants to continue expanding the programs, the inmates are skeptical that they'll get what they want. What they want is more classes. And they want them now.

The inmates believe all the thousands of Honey Buns, sausage logs and Rice Krispie Treats they've purchased should have translated into even more pre-natal yoga classes and anger management sessions.

They complain that they still don't have access to many of the jail's "education and welfare" programs. There are long waiting lists. And many inmates aren't even aware of the services.

Arpaio does want to add more classes, but he also has other ideas in the works.

The sheriff will use some of the funds to launch a radio program called KJOE for inmates this fall. Arpaio plans to spend about $2,800 to introduce the program to inmates in the Fourth Avenue jail. It will include a live show with the sheriff, music selected by the sheriff and educational programming that could include lessons in resume writing and interviewing techniques.

It may not exactly be the kind of thing inmates were hoping for.

Donna Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said that out of the thousands of people who pass through the jails every year, only a minuscule number actually get programs they need.

"There could be a lot more services in terms of vocational training and life-skill training," she said.

Proud of the programs
But sheriff's officials are proud of the programs they provide. The jails offer more than 60 programs and officials say about a third of the inmate population takes advantage of the services.

Programs range from GED classes and 12-step counseling to tax classes and animal welfare programs.

"We're well known for the programs we offer," said Thelda Williams, inmate programs division commander. "We're always encouraging inmates to participate. It's good for them."

Arpaio praised the use of the funds, saying the inmates are paying to educate themselves as opposed to being educated on the taxpayer's dime.

He said they have faced space limitations in the old jails, which should ease up with the opening of the new jails.

Of the more than $11 million in revenue generated in 2005, about $3 million paid for canteen operations, and $5 million went toward salaries and supplies for programs. The rest will be rolled over for next year.

Sheriff's officials aren't exactly sure how they will spend the extra $4 million just yet. Arpaio will have to get approval from the board of supervisors before he could start a new project with the money.

The fund pays for 53 staff positions, including teachers, chaplains, counselors and librarians.

"We try very hard to make sure we stay within the parameters of what the initial intent of (the fund) was," said Loretta Barkell, chief financial officer for the Sheriff's Office.

The office came under fire several years ago after money from the fund was used to help run and build the jails, including the expansion of Tent City housing.

Barkell said the office doesn't spend fund money on construction, but itmay use it for items such as computer software that benefit inmates.

Putting in requests
Inmates learn about the programs mostly through word-of-mouth.

Sialik Montiel, 26, has been in Estrella Jail for more than two months.

Montiel, who was arrested on a warrant for driving under the influence, said she hasrequested parenting classes and drug counseling, but she still hasn't been put on a list.

Williams said that the old jails lacked capacity for classrooms, and inmates sometimes faced a three to four week waiting list.

"They'll get in some program, absolutely," she said. "They may not get their first choice their first day, but they'll get something."

Inmate Guevara Truedicia, 35, said she'd like to see more educational programs. Even though they may only be in jail for a short period of time, she said, it's still an opportunity to learn.

"Somebody can learn fractions in four months. Somebody can learn to read a book in four months. Somebody can learn multiplication in four months," she said. "We don't have anything else to do."

Most jail inmates are either awaiting trial or have been sentenced to less than a year's imprisonment.

The sheriff's office provides its 10,100 inmates with a bunk, toilets, showers and two meals a day. Inmates usually have to pay for anything beyond that.

If they want to make a local phone call, it's $2.30 for 12 minutes on the sheriff's collect-call system. If they want to see a doctor, it's a $10 medical co-pay. If they want a bar of generic soap, it's $.75 (a bar of Neutrogena costs $3.70).

Inmates can order up to $100 worth of canteen goods every week. There are about 200 items available, everything from mascara and puzzle books to chili-in-a-pouch and Snickers.

Sheriff's officials take the money out of each inmate's personal account. Inmates without money receive an indigent package that includes five postcards, a pencil, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

Canteen Administrator Victoria Brown said they stress customer service, figuring happier inmates make for safer, more profitable jails.

"It's a tool to keep everyone manageable," she said, adding that officials can take away canteen privileges for those inmates who misbehave.

In the last two years, sales orders increased by 96 percent, she said.

Brown said staffers conduct market studies to make sure the prices are in line with vending machines and grocery and convenience stores.

But some inmates don't think the prices are fair. For example, inmates pay $1 for a package of Ramen-type noodles that generally costs less than 25 cents at grocery stores. Arpaio doesn't want to hear complaints about the prices or the food: "They're lucky they're getting anything. I don't have to do this. They can eat bologna all day."

Reach the reporter at or (602)444-4845.

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