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Originally published Friday, April 24, 2009 at 2:36 PM

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Fla. inmates, families upset about snack prices

Having to pay more for Honey Buns and other prison snack shop items has made inmates at Florida prisons and their families upset.

Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. —

Having to pay more for Honey Buns and other prison snack shop items has made inmates at Florida prisons and their families upset.

The state, which has the nation's third largest state prison system, raised prices about three weeks ago under a new contract with an outside company. Since then, the department has gotten approximately 60 phone calls and letters from families complaining about the increases.

"The prices have increased dramatically," one inmate's family wrote in an e-mail to the department signed "concerned family." "We have to send money to our loved one and now he can hardly buy anything substantial. Please can we fix this?"

Officials are working with the company that provides the goods and sets the prices at Florida's about 130 prisons to see if some prices can be lowered, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Friday. Prices at the snack shops, called canteens, were last changed in October. While it's not unusual to get complaints when prices increase, Plessinger said there seem to be more this time.

"Prices are going up everywhere," Plessinger said. "We're sympathetic to them, but it's tough on everyone."

Prices went up March 30. Peanut M&Ms and Snickers bars jumped from 66 cents to 89 cents. A can of Coke that used to cost 57 cents now costs 89.

But the price increase that has prompted the most outrage is on Honey Buns. The old price for the cinnamon pastry with icing was 66 cents. Now it's 99 cents. A chocolate variety of the sweet went from 61 cents to $1.49.

The department is looking at possibly substituting another less-expensive brand, Plessinger said.

Also up: cigarettes. A pack of Marlboro cigarettes used to cost $3.70 but is now $4.47 - an increase of 77 cents. The increase is, in part, the result of 62-cent-per-pack federal sales tax increase that went into effect April 1. Prisons in other states also reported increasing their prices on cigarettes as a result.

Money from canteen sales goes into the state's general fund, about $30 million last year according to the department. The prices have to be in line with what the general public pays for goods.

The department contracts with Missouri-based Keefe Commissary Network to supply the commissaries. Mark Jensen, senior vice president of Centric Group, Keefe's parent company, said the nationwide supplier of products to correctional facility commissaries doesn't comment on current customers or contracts.

Inmates use a plastic ID card that works like a debit card to buy items. Some prisoners have jobs that pay a small amount, but most money is deposited in an inmate's account by family members.

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Jill Lopez has two young children and a fiance in prison in Raiford in north Florida who she sends between $20 and $40 a week.

"I can't send him any more. There's no way," said Lopez, 46, a Fort Pierce secretary who makes $12 an hour.

Lopez's fiance, Fred Whyms, 39, has about two years left in prison for dealing in stolen property. He told her inmates are extremely frustrated with the price increases and that some items are going missing.

"They're all freaking out," Lopez said in a telephone interview. "You have grown men that are hungry. What's going to happen? There're going to be more fights. People are going to crankier."

In some places that has already happened, according to Charles Norman, an inmate serving a life sentence at the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach.

"Prisoners whose families sacrificed to send them money to buy sweets, drinks, food items, and toiletries were getting assaulted, and their canteen bags taken from them," he wrote in a newsletter e-mailed to friends. "The strong ones armed themselves."

In an e-mail, Department of Corrections spokesman Alex Thompson said they had not gotten any complaints that the price increases resulted in abuse.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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