I love to go shopping. As a teenager, I lived for the days I could go to the mall and explore all of the cool stores. As an adult, I can get lost in Amazon for hours. Finding yourself a little something special to spend your money on is a lot of fun, no matter if you are at the grocery store buying ingredients for your favorite meal or searching online for the perfect pair of shoes.
When you are in prison, that feeling doesn’t change. There is nothingㅡand I mean NOTHINGㅡmore important than commissary. Keep reading to find out everything you want to know about inmate commissary.
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
The inmate commissaryㅡalso known as the canteen or prison storeㅡis the place where inmates can buy a variety of different items to help make their prison stay a little more comfortable.
Prisons issue inmates very few items. When it comes to clothing, you get three outfits to wear (for example, khaki or orange tops and bottoms), pajamas, a few pairs of underwear, a couple pairs of socks, bras or t-shirts, boots, and a coat.
They will also issue you basic hygiene items like a tiny bar of soap, a comb, a toothbrush, and toilet paper. Women’s prisons also provide sanitary napkins. You are also provided three meals a day at the chow hall.
If you want or need anything else, you have to buy it from the commissary.
In the state prison where I was incarcerated, the state gave you $7.50 per month to spend at the store ($8.50 if you had a high school diploma), but if you owed money for court fees, restitution, or the victim’s compensation fund, they would only give you $5 and put the difference towards what you owe.
You could also get a “paying job” where you could earn anywhere between $10 and $50 per month. The only other way to get money for the prison store was to have your family or friends, “put money on your books,” which is prison slang for depositing money into your commissary account.
The commissary is like a mini-Walmart. You can buy everything from food to electronics, and at my prison, most of the items available were chosen by the canteen council, which is a group of inmates.
I can still remember the canteen list because I looked at it every week. I won’t list everything that was available to buy, but I will share some of the most popular items.
Let’s start with items that were prison currency. Inmates have their own economy inside prison walls, and since they don’t have access to cash they use the barter system. Items that are used for currency are stamps, soups (ramen noodles), sodas, and cigarettes (you could still buy tobacco in prison when I was incarcerated).
All of those items are available for purchase at the commissary, but that’s just the beginning. When it comes to food, you could buy spaghetti noodles, chips, cookies, bags of chicken and tuna, cheese, crackers, refried beans, poptarts, and tortilla shells.
Condiments like mayo, ketchup, and mustard were also available, as well as spices.
We also had fundraisers for different organizations on camp where you could buy chips, candy, sandwiches, and bags of frozen vegetables.
The drinks available were coffee, tea, lemonade, orange juice, and soda.
I should add that I lived in dorm-style housing that had a dayroom with a microwave. You wouldn’t believe the meals that inmates could put together with the items on canteen. I honestly thought about writing a prison cookbook because some of these meals were incredible.
Other items available were electronics, like televisions, CD players, headphones, and typewriters (yes, they still make typewriters). You could also buy paper, envelopes, pens, pencils, erasers, and stamps.
Another big item is clothing. This is a must because the prison-issued clothes are horrible. You can buy t-shirts, sweatpants and sweatshirts (no hoodies), lounge pants, shorts, socks, tennis shoes, and underwear.
There were also hygiene items like tiny toothbrushes, anti-shank razors, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, makeup, hair dryers, curling irons, hairbrushes, deodorant, and soap.
Every prison is different when it comes to what items are available, but the basics are pretty common no matter what prison you are in. If you’d like to see an actual commissary list from federal prison click here.
We were allowed to go to the store once a week. And, the day of the week you went to the store was determined by your housing unit. The process in the prison I was in was all computerized. Each housing unit had touchscreen kiosks where you could place your order in the days leading up to your store day.
On your housing unit’s store day, they would call you to the commissary by wing, and everyone would hustle up there to get their groceries. The workers at the canteen would pull your order and put it in mesh bags, and then they would call your name and hand you your items.
Being a soda addict, I always ordered the maximum of two 12-packs every week. My canteen bags were so heavy, that one time I broke my finger carrying my bag from the canteen to the housing unit. It was brutal carrying those monster bags, but totally worth it.
I was lucky because I had family and friends sending money every week so I could buy whatever I wanted. The monthly spending limit was $350 (excluding big ticket items). But, most people lived on a tight budget of about 10 to 20 dollars per week.
Store day was always the best day of the week. The line for the microwave was long because everyone had something to cook. Everybody was always in a good mood on store day, and it was something I looked forward to each and every week.
The process for depositing money into an inmate’s commissary depends on the prison. Most prisons have a mail option, where you can mail in a check or money order. They also have an electronic option where you use a website like JPay to put money on their account using a debit or credit card.
You can find out specific details about how to put money on a prisoner’s books on Prison Insight. All you have to do is click on the prison where your loved one is incarcerated, and you will find details about sending money to that specific facility.
And, there you have it. That is inmate commissary 101. When you are an inmate, there is nothing better than seeing that someone deposited money into your account so you can go to the store. There is no amount too small, and it makes an inmate feel like they haven’t been forgotten.
Are you surprised by what prisoners can buy from commissary? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: FCI Commissary List https://www.bop.gov/locations/institutions/dub/DUB_CommList.pdf
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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