Voices From the Inside Out: Monopolies hurt prisoners

September 21, 2021

From the September-October 2021 issue of News & Letters

Nothing defines capitalist greed more than the word “Monopoly.” We aren’t talking about the board game; we are talking about that singular concept and ideation that is a conscious decision to create a condition which, by its very nature, is prejudicial and immoral.

A monopoly enables a singular entity to corner the market on a population. This allows for predatory marketing and pricing practices to be promulgated against that population. By the removal of competition from the equation, the enabler of an allowed monopoly insures they will get a bigger slice of the pie on the kickbacks, especially if such a monopoly was allowed through a governmental bidding process.


As the prison industrial complex became more sophisticated and the locking up of prisoners became phenomenally lucrative, more vendors started popping up which catered solely to the captive prison market. Companies like Keefe/Access, Walkenhorst, J.L. Marcus and Union Supply Group (USG) became some of the better known corporate prostitutes when it came to soliciting contracts from governmental agencies in order to provide goods and services to prisoners.

Correctional contracts are such cash generators that the bidding process becomes a study in cutthroat dynamics. Companies found that if they undercut their competition on the front end, they could reap large rewards after the contracts were awarded, often by selling inferior products of their corporate knock-off brands for inflated prices to the prisoner market. To really reap the benefits, you have to convince a governmental entity that being the sole vendor is a good thing.

Actual society is not a society of equal competitors, but one in which certain competitors start with some kind of advantage or monopoly. Monopolies do not exist without the agreement of a governmental agency acting in collusion with another party.


The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has turned such collusive efforts into an art form. For decades Wisconsin allowed its prisoners to purchase approved goods—either through family and friends, or personally—on the open market. Even under the reign of Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin governor who trashed most of what prisoners had gained over the years, prisoners still had options for things they purchased.

Ironically, it was during Republicrat Jim Doyle’s administration that some of the more obtuse policies started to take place, especially when it came to the use of authorized vendors. Even then prisoners and their families still had competitive options available to them when it came to some property items.

Surprisingly, the process stayed pretty stable under Scott Walker, except that companies became bolder when it came to pricing their items, and predatory pricing practices became more evident, especially with certain items purchased from companies like J.L. Marcus.

For several years, prisoners in Wisconsin received canteen and property from a number of vendors; though prices were high, there was at least a competitive choice. That process will change in October of this year. At that time the Union Supply Group (USG) out of California will become Wisconsin’s sole provider of both canteen and property for its prisoners, thus putting a lock on every aspect of prisoner purchases in the state.

USG has already been supplying canteen items to Wisconsin’s prisoners, often inferior house brands produced—as compared to the house brands of Keefe, for instance—for premium prices. Name-brand items are often sold at inflated prices, and then there are the ludicrous pricing practices that are a sign of things to come. One example is a 24-bottle case of water which retails for less than $5 in the community but costs $13.92 from USG on canteen.

Not a month goes by when we don’t hear of some city, state or country challenging corporate monopolies, acting as the guardians of citizens’ rights to avoid corporate abuses. It’s unfortunate that such protections are qualified, allowing leeway to create subjective policies that allow for exceptions to be made for prisoners and their loved ones, exemplifying the ideological myth, by the state, of fairness.

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