THE TOUGH CUSTOMER – CONsumer complaint: Jail canteen raises inmate's ire
I received a letter a few weeks ago from an inmate at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail expressing "hopes that my pleas and lack of respect that we receive while incarcerated will be heard throughout our community."
Before I get to those pleas, I'll note that I could not specifically confirm my correspondent's status as a current or former inmate, so I won't be using his name. In any event, given the general issues involved, this inmate's specific identity is not necessary.
"Inmate X" had some complaints about the jail's canteen, a privately run operation at the jail that sells miscellaneous supplies and foodstuffs to the inmates, somewhat comparable to a neighborhood convenience store.
X wrote that he had purchased a package of pastries from the canteen, and that later that evening, upon opening and eating one of them, he noticed mold in the package.
The canteen refused to refund his money.
According to Jail Superintendent Col. Ronald Matthews, the canteen's policy is that prisoners must "inspect the product before they take delivery." Matthews explained that otherwise the canteen has no way of knowing whether the product became defective after it was purchased, or if it was even purchased by the inmate attempting to return it.
Col. Matthews' explanation has surface appeal, but in my experience, most stores, at least in our little burg, would provide a refund in this situation, provided the purchaser could establish the place and time of the purchase through a receipt or other method. Indeed, any store that failed to do so would eventually see a drop in sales from a lack of repeat business, as ticked-off customers went elsewhere.
The canteen, of course, enjoys a monopoly in the prison, not to mention a, ahem, captive customer base. That explains the policy; it doesn't justify it.
Perhaps one might argue that jail inmates are less honest consumers than people on the street, but that's debatable. Also, I suspect, some people may feel that extending any consideration to prison inmates amounts to coddling, and thereby takes the sting out of punishment– so who cares anyway?
I'm looking at it, however, from a purely consumer perspective. And from here the policy seems unfairly strict, at least as applied to food products, which are often purchased for consumption at a later time. A convenience store should give a refund for a defective product. Since it's not always practical to inspect food at the time of purchase, in jail or out, shouldn't the customer get the benefit of the doubt?
X also complained, "Some of the foods ... are clearly outrageously priced."
"Ramen noodles that are 10 cents on the street are 67 cents in jail," he wrote, helpfully enclosing a canteen price list. "Packs of mayo are 10 cents apiece. A pack of tuna fish that costs under $1 on the street costs us $1.95."
Matthews stressed that a private contractor, not the jail, operates the canteen and sets the prices. Even so, he also maintained that canteen prices are comparable to prices at a 7-11.
So I checked out a local 7-11, and Matthews is right. Some canteen products are significantly more expensive, such as tuna, while some are significantly less, such as AAA batteries. Some are competitive, such as soda, candy, and most hygiene products I looked at.
Lastly, X complained that the canteen's clothing, and its shower and tennis shoes, are of poor quality, but I was unable to evaluate this claim.
While Matthews says there is occasional griping among inmates about the canteen, as far as he knows, all problems get resolved, and he has received only one on-the-record complaint about the canteen in his three years at the jail that has led to an administrative proceeding.
Still, X is clearly aggrieved. Not having ever been in his situation, it's difficult for me to fully appreciate his position, so to get a better perspective on the issue, I'd be very interested in hearing from any readers with personal experiences with the jail canteen.