The recent news that Tesco is to merge with the nations biggest wholesaler, Booker, wouldn’t usually spring out as a story that is relevant to prisons, but it could well have far reaching implications within Britain’s jails. Not least because Booker has an exclusive contract to supply the weekly canteen order of all prisoners in public sector prisons.
The method by which prisoners can buy products from food and drink to toiletries, stationary to tobacco, is that we receive a weekly ‘canteen sheet’ detailing how much money we have available to spend in the form of our prison wages and a small allowance of our own money from outside of prison and what items we wish to order. This is submitted and, in most prisons, the order forms of each prisoner are collected together and sent off to the nearest jail that operates a “Canteen Distribution Shop”. Here, prisoners are employed to collect the goods that have been ordered and to seal them in individual bags together with a receipt for each particular order. These bags are then delivered back to the prison the orders came from and handed to the prisoners about a week after they submitted their order.
However, behind the scenes there is a lot more going on. Prisoners technically purchase their canteen order from NOMS (The National Offender Management Service) at prices that are set by them. NOMS then contract Booker to supply those items (usually at a lower price than NOMS sells them despite NOMS claiming that they make no profit), and Booker in turn contract DHL to deliver the orders from one prison to another.
However, there are certain items (such as clothes and electricals) that cannot be ordered on the weekly canteen sheet. These must be ordered from one of the ‘approved suppliers’ using a catalogue order form. For a long time this has included such catalogues as Argos but, occasionally, prisons have attempted to switch approved suppliers to other companies. For example, in three separate prisons I have been to staff have attempted to contract Tesco Direct to supply products not available on the weekly canteen sheet. On each and every occasion we ave been told by staff that Tesco have declined the contract on the basis that “They don’t want to deal with prisoners”, “It was against their company ethos”, or “They are concerned that it will attract negative publicity”.
So, if Tesco really don’t want to deal with prisoners but they have now merged with Booker, who supply prisoners with their weekly canteen orders, something may well have to change. The first possibility is that Booker will cease to supply our canteen orders, meaning that NOMS will have to seek another supplier to fulfil the contract. Since they haven’t been very successful at negotiating alternatives so far, this is unlikely to be successful and, in all likelihood, the system will revert back to what it was like some twenty years ago when each individual prison had an actual shop where designated staff obtained goods from local wholesalers and sold it on to prisoners inside the jail. This would be widely welcomed by prisoners who, for the most part, are convinced that we currently pay far more for far worse quality than we ever used to.
On the other hand, Tesco may, either change their mind about dealing with prisoners or keep a firm division between the two arms of the merged company, so that they can remain separate from Booker’s activities. Either’ way, the supplier of our weekly canteen order will be a branch of Tesco, making it very easy for prisoners and the general public to compare the prices charged within prisons to those charged in your local Tesco supermarket.
Some time ago such price comparisons showed that prisoners were paying up to 200% more that the general public to buy the very same goods. Perhaps the merger between Tesco and Booker will herald closer parity in pricing, but I doubt it. Either way, it seems that prison canteens may well be in store for a shake up. In the meantime I have obtained an original prison canteen form which you can view for yourself here. Why not have a glance and compare the prices against your weekly shop? I don’t know how they’ll measure up but if you’d like to let me know what you find I’d be very interested.