One of the few highlights in the life of an inmate in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is the once-per-week privilege of going to commissary, which is the prison equivalent of the local supermarket.  Since packages from family and friends are not allowed in the BOP, the commissary is an inmate’s only opportunity to get the amenities that can make serving their time more bearable.

Who Can Shop at the Commissary?

Commissary is a privilege granted to inmates at all general population institutions in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  In general, all inmates that have money in their trust fund account (and who have nor already spent more than $320.00 that month) will be able to shop at the commissary.

There are three exceptions to this rule:

  • Inmates that are serving a period on commissary restriction due to a disciplinary infraction;
  • Inmates that have refused to participate in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program; and
  • Inmates that are housed outside general population (for example, the Special Housing Unit).

Inmates that fall into these categories are limited to purchasing from a very restricted list, spending a maximum of $25.00 per month, not the regular $320.00 per month.

What Can Be Bought In Federal Prison Commissaries?

Every commissary offers a variety of items for purchase, ranging from basic hygiene and medical supplies to foods to clothing.  Each federal prison will have a different selection, but there are some items that are available at all institutions, such as over-the-counter medical supplies, like band-aids, aspirin/pain relievers, vitamins, cough drops/syrup, and muscle rub.

Each prison facility will have different offerings for foods, drinks, and clothing.  In general, there will be a variety of snacks (candy bars, hard candies, chips, cookies), foods (soups, cured meats, cheese, fish), and drinks (drink mixes and sodas).  Most institutions sell these items, though the exact selection will differ from prison to prison; for example, one institution may sell Pepsi products while another sells Coca Cola, or one institution might offer Snickers while another does not.  At some prisons, these items are rotated from time to time.

Each federal prison will also offer clothing for sale, but again, each facility may offer different selections.  Almost all offer the expected socks, undergarments, and t-shirts, and others also offer thermal clothing, baseball hats, and tank tops.

Most facilities will offer watches, AM/FM radios, calculators, and other common items.  Many now offer a Bureau-authorized MP3 player as well, which can be used to play music purchased on the inmate computer system, TRULINCS.

There may also be what are termed “local use” items, which are items that an inmate may purchase and use at that institution, but which they cannot transfer away with.  Examples of these items are weight gloves (for institutions that have weight piles in the Recreation Department), typing supplies (since not all facilities use typewriters), and personal fans, sold at certain prisons, depending on local weather and security concerns.

What Cannot Be Bought

Federal Bureau of Prisons policy prevents institutions from selling certain items, for various reasons.  Among other items, no BOP facility is allowed to sell items that can easily spoil (bread, fresh fruits, vegetables), personal televisions, electronic devices (such as beard trimmers), or “prepared” foods (fast food like McDonalds or KFC).

How To Pay for Commissary Purchases

Inmates pay for their commissary purchases from their inmate trust fund account.  This account pays for not only an inmate’s commissary, but for their telephone calls, e-mails, legal work printouts, and, depending on the institution, their music (MP3) purchases.

Inmates can receive money in their accounts by earning it through their work assignment, or by friends or family sending money to them.  Outside parties can send money using multiple methods:

  • MoneyGram
  • Western Union
  • U.S. Postal Money Orders
  • Personal Checks

Cash is not an authorized form of deposit.  All money that is sent through the U.S. Mail must be sent to the Bureau’s Lockbox in Des Moines, IA, and, if not in the form of a U.S. Postal Money Order, is subject to a 14-day hold before it becomes usable.  Money can also be sent online and by telephone, using a credit card, and money sent this way is available to the federal inmate within a few hours.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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