Illinois Prisoners Bilked Out of Millions Through DOC Commissary Surcharges

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FEW PRISONERS WOULD BE SHOCKED to learn that they are paying
too much for items sold in prison commissaries or canteens.
The Illinois Dept. of Corrections (IDOC), however,
has taken commissary price-gouging to an extreme level.
In order to generate more revenue to help fund an overcapacity
prison system, the Illinois General Assembly
passed Senate Bill 0629 in 2004. The bill, which became
Public Act 93-0607, granted the IDOC authority to add up
to a 25% surcharge on all non-tobacco products and up to
35% on all tobacco products sold at prison commissaries.
Prior to this amendment the surcharge was capped at 10%.
Illinois prisoners groaned as commissary prices rose.
As captive consumers who rely on meager prison wages,
the price increase meant a drastic reduction in what they
were able to purchase.
Ironically, it wasn’t prisoners who cried the loudest
about the price increase but rather prison guards. Their
union, the American Federation of State, County and
Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was able to convince
state lawmakers to sponsor a bill to exempt IDOC employees
from most of the price increase by capping commissary
surcharges at 10% for prison staff. The bill passed and
became Public Act 94-0913, effective June 23, 2006.
Beginning November 1, 2005, the IDOC began imposing
an additional surcharge of 3% on commissary items
beyond the statutorily-permitted 25% and 35% mark-ups.
Two months later the IDOC increased the additional surcharge
to 7%.
Those may seem like small amounts, but consider
there are around 45,000 IDOC prisoners who purchase
commissary items on a regular basis. In a July 20, 2009
report, the Illinois Auditor General concluded that the
IDOC had received additional revenue from the 3%-7%
surcharges in the amounts of $1,266,911 for fiscal year
2006, $2,259,760 in fiscal year 2007, and $2,339,244 in
fiscal year 2008. Thus, over that three-year period, the
IDOC reaped $5.8 million from the additional commissary
mark-ups.
The unlawful nature of the 3%–7% surcharges was first
pointed out to the IDOC by the Auditor General’s Office in
a 2007 report, which noted they were, “duplicative and
exceed the statutorily allowed mark-up.” The report recommended
that the IDOC, “revise its methodology” and
“comply with the statute and only mark-up goods for
resale in the inmate commissary to the allowable amounts.”
IDOC officials tried to justify their actions with a selfserving
interpretation of the statute (730 ILCS 5/3-7-2a),
which they claimed allowed, “additional charges” to pay
the wages and benefits of commissary employees. The
Auditor General recommended that the IDOC, “seek a formal
written Attorney General opinion on this matter.”
During an April 1, 2008 hearing before the Legislative
Audit Commission, then IDOC Director Roger E. Walker,
Jr. said the department would continue imposing the 7%
surcharge until it received a response from the Attorney
General’s office. However, when the Auditor General
asked for a copy of the IDOC’s letter requesting an opinion
from the Attorney General, the IDOC revealed that it had
never sought a formal opinion.
This was not the only devious tactic employed by the
IDOC. Instead of applying the 3%–7% surcharges to the
cost of commissary items sold, the IDOC was applying
the increase to the selling price of items after the authorized
25% and 35% mark-ups were added. Thus,
instead of a 3%–7% surcharge, prisoners were paying an
effective 9% increase.
The IDOC was largely unapologetic, despite having
bilked Illinois prisoners out of almost $6 million
between fiscal years 2006 and 2008. Prison officials stated
they would, “once again try to get permission to seek
an opinion from the Attorney General,” and optimistically
said there was, “every expectation permission will be
granted.” In the meantime, Illinois prisoners continue to
pay the legally-questionable 7% surcharge on prison
commissary sales.
Sources: Illinois Auditor General reports, www.ilga.gov

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2 Responses to Illinois Prisoners Bilked Out of Millions Through DOC Commissary Surcharges

  1. Pingback: San Francisco Bay View » Illinois prisoners boycott overpriced phone calls, commissary and vending machines

  2. Pingback: Prison Boycott in Illinois Targets Costs of Incarceration | News4Security

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