The Arizona Department of Corrections is deciding which company will run a general store that sells prisoners a wide range of merchandise, from toilet paper to television sets.
Although the department is prohibited by law from saying which companies are bidding, the sign-in sheet from a pre-proposal meeting in April shows four companies were interested, including the current contractor, Keefe Commissary Network, which is linked to kickback schemes that ended with convictions for the top corrections officials in two states.
The contract is valued at roughly
$43 million a year and the department will get almost 6 percent of the cut.
The other companies to attend the pre-proposal meeting were Union Supply Group, a California company that specializes in managing prison commissaries; Ace Vending, an Arizona vending-machine company; and Trinity Services Group, a Florida commissary company. Bids are scheduled to be opened July 15.
Prisoners, unless they are deemed indigent, must buy their toiletries from the commissary, also known as a canteen, and they can also buy food, office supplies and clothing from the store.
Donna Hamm, president of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said a commissary holds an important place for prisoners.
“Life in prison is very restricted and mundane and so a candy bar or a bag of favorite potato chips or some make up for the female prisoners takes on a special significance that you would not ordinarily attribute to someone in the free world,” Hamm said.
Hamm, who has been doing prisoner advocacy work since 1983, said prisoners are generally resentful of anyone who would profit off of their incarceration, and they often feel the commissary price-gouges them, especially since many prison jobs pay so little, 20 cents to 30 cents an hour.
Keefe, which has had the contract since 2006, has not been given any so-called cure notices in the most recent five-year contract period, according to the department.
A cure notice is a formal letter to a contractor alleging lack of compliance.
Keefe did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
The company has been linked to kick-back schemes in Florida and Mississippi, where the top prison official in both states were convicted on felony charges.
No one from the company or the company itself were indicted in the schemes.
The convictions of Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and Florida Department of Corrections Secretary James Crosby Jr. stem from schemes that occurred from 2003 to 2008.
Crosby was sentenced in 2007 to eight years in prison and got out in January 2015.
An FBI press release said Crosby and another prison official convinced Keefe to use two associates as subcontractors to run the Florida prison canteens.
The associates then provided $130,000 in kickbacks to Crosby and the other prison official over a two-year period.
The associates also agreed to pay two former Keefe executives $260,000 of the estimated $1.5 million in sales proceeds.
Court documents say Epps gave state business to an associate, Cecil McCrory, or to businesses McCrory consulted for, one of which was Keefe.
The indictment says Epps was paid between $45,000 and $60,000 in 2007 to award the commissary contract to a company McCrory owned.
Epps approved the assignment of the contract in 2008 to Keefe, which gave McCrory a large profit. McCrory then paid off Epps’ mortgage.
Epps is still awaiting sentencing.