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How Inmate Commissary Works

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Giving inmates access to additional items through a commissary may seem to be a undeserved privilege but it helps correctional staff by improving inmate morale through providing activities and satisfaction. Sales are not only a creative way to defray operating expenses but they contribute to the economies of communities where inventory is acquired.

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Ways Jails and Prisons Operate Stores

Not all agencies maintain and operate internal stores, choosing instead to outsource the services. Commissary orders in local detention centers are generally submitted either by officers who collect completed paper order forms or through an electronic ordering system using centrally located telephones so that inmates with money in their account use a private code issued to them when initially booked or classified to dial in item numbers and quantities for what they want then review and confirm orders. After assembling the orders they are delivered to the housing areas on a regularly scheduled basis. Individual state prisons often have a physical store or checkout window that may be accessible during work hours where prisoners can select the items they want at their convenience using their identification cards as the form of payment the same way people on the outside use debit cards.

Prison cell furnished with electronics
Major contributers to their prison housing costs

Outside observers might be tempted to think that there is an increased risk of price gouging a captive audience but a Department of Corrections commissary study by the Procurement Policy Board for the state of Illinois finds that during the fiscal years 2009 and 2010 that state's prisons spent a total of $59,530,856.82 with nearly 200 vendors to supply goods purchased by inmates. In another report it's found that those same prisoners cost taxpayers $22,043 per year to incarcerate with an average daily population of 45,981, a total of over 1.1 billion dollars (IDOC 2010 Annual Report). Operating their commissary at a profit is a necessity and using the privilege as a motivational tool to stave off unruly, disobedient behavior is a benefit.

Providing The Comforts Of Home

Many of the items offered like stationary and other writing utensils, including greeting cards and postage stamps, are specifically selected to keep prisoners occupied by promoting creativity or encouraging them to maintain connections with family and loved ones on the outside. Other time consuming items found from facility to facility are puzzle books, playing cards and board games. State and Federal penitentiaries will have a wider selection of entertainment products such as televisions, portable radios, musical instruments and cooling fans that are registered to the individual so these high-ticket items can't be traded or stolen easily. Where there is an even bigger difference is that most counties in America have prohibited the use of tobacco products but many state agencies still allow smoking and have cigarettes for sale as well as smokeless tobacco.

Example of clothing for inmates
Example from Palm Beach County Florida

Jails are often kept cold and don't provide much clothing aside from one or two piece uniforms, prisons will vary in their comfort level but one thing is certain; The average person is often unprepared to be locked up when they are arrested. A useful category on commissary sheets that satisfies a real need is clothing items which for male prisoners might include t-shirts, underwear, men's shoes and boxer shorts while women are offered shoes in their sizes, bras, panties and feminine hygiene products. Other comfort and convenience items can include socks, sweatpants, shorts, flip-flops, thermal underwear, wash cloths, towels, extra sheets, pillows and pillow cases.

It's said that jail and prison food can be terrible, often it's not but for many people it isn't filling enough or the last and first meals are spread too far apart. Because of this, many inmates horde food rather than become hungry between meals.

Food items on a commissary list
Example from Washington County Oregon

A variety of edible items are available to inmates to purchase which can be as simple as hard candy or bagged chips to sliced spam and tuna fish. Facilities with larger inventories also carry tortillas, soft drinks, condiments, radios and diabetic foods. Two of the most popular items in the food category are instant coffee and ramen noodles which are usually cooked with items saved from a prior meal and may be combined into a larger "Spread" or "Chi-Chi" with several inmates contributing other food tray or snack items. The most attractive and comforting aspect of these items is the feeling of warmth and a hot meal, the difficult part of heating these types of products is getting hot water which might be provided by a community hotpot or microwave though some inmates like those in the Kerr County Jail in Texas only have access to warm water from showers and sinks. They resort to warming things in a peanut butter jar that they will float in a running sink of water that's built into one of the toilets.

Availability Of Specialty Items

Hygiene items available to prisoners
Example from Daviess County Kentucky

Hygiene and pharmaceuticals keep inmates clean and healthy. Some items are provided free to sick or indigent inmates but they are usually single or limited use that can run out quickly and easily. Premium items like deodorant soap, shampoos, ointments, hand sanitizers, vitamin supplements and pain relievers are staple items that are regulated but can help relieve momentary discomforts that would otherwise tie up medical staff and alternately prevent some of the illnesses that close quarters and poor hygiene can create.

With real money it's easier to access unique or time sensitive publications. Though many correctional facilities have libraries, some of what is permitted but not available to buy through commissary services are paperback books and subscriptions to magazines and newspapers which must all be sent directly from publishers to avoid tampering. Work release program participants and trustees may have the option to obtain detergent and better grooming tools like twin blade razors because they may have a limited wardrobe and need to present the best appearance possible in public situations. Certain items can obviously be used as a form of currency to exchange for contraband brought in from the outside or officially issued materials that not readily available to everyone but providing inmate commissary services can result in safer, more manageable prisoner populations overall.

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