Inflation behind bars — the tragedy of the generic cocoa


Idaho Execution
Flags fly outside the Idaho Maximum Security Institution following the execution of Richard Leavitt on Tuesday, June 12, 2012 in Kuna, Idaho. Prison officials declared Leavitt, 53, dead at 10:25 a.m. Tuesday by lethal injection at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. It was only Idaho’s second execution in 17 years. Leavitt was convicted of stabbing 31-year-old Danette Elg, of Blackfoot, in 1984. (AP Photo/Idaho Press-Tribune, Greg Kreller) MANDATORY CREDIT Greg Kreller

Inflation behind bars — the tragedy of the generic cocoa

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The New York Times, following the lead of its economics czar, Paul Krugman, spent most of two years pushing the line that inflation was a temporary phenomenon, sure to pass once COVID-19-related supply chain disruptions eased.

In light of so much evidence to the contrary, however, the paper has in recent months taken inflation a bit more seriously. This change was made crystal clear on Nov. 6, when the Gray Lady published a cri de coeur in the “Sunday Review” titled, “Prisoners Like Me Are Being Held Hostage to Price Increases.”

The piece was “penned,” so to speak, by one Patrick Irving, a convicted felon serving a sentence of 15 to 40 years in a state prison in southern Idaho. Irving’s crime? Two counts of arson. But don’t worry — he was not really responsible because he committed the crime “during a six-month stretch while [he] was in a drug-induced psychosis.”

I wonder if Irving, while in a prison to the south of Boise, has access to music CDs or streaming services. If so, he might try listening to Merle Haggard’s classic, “Mama Tried.” Just a thought.

Anyway, the gist of Irving’s urgent appeal is that prices “of certain essentials” in the prison commissary “have swelled beyond some prisoners’ ability to pay.” Mon dieu. Nothing makes my blood boil more than the fact that because of inflation, prisoners in Idaho now have to pay more for their five-ounce sausages and sriracha. They now have to get by on “generic” cocoa, which, according to Irving, has replaced Swiss Miss on the shelves. They have to pony up more for their honey and their artificial sweetener, too. Even more distressing is the fact that the prisoners in Idaho now have to pay more for the ingredients to make fudge.

And that’s not the end of it. Clothing at the commissary now costs more, too, making it more difficult to grab those coveted thermal tops and bottoms ($6.66 to $7.48). And the big picture? Last April, the company in charge of the commissary, the Keefe Group, announced that it was raising prices. Irving said the company “attributed (emphasis added) the move to the COVID pandemic and its financial impacts on trucking, manufacturing, labor and other parts of the supply chain.” According to Irving, “The projected damage to our prison wallets was approximately 8.5% for everything that remained on the roster.”

In other words, prices rose in his prison at a rate lower than the 2022 food inflation rate for those of us not presently incarcerated. Whatever the New York Times editors’ intent, this hardly seems like the type of issue to get normal people to take to the barricades. Clearly, today it is the New York Times that tries men’s souls.


Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome distinguished professor of history and the director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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