how-does-prison-commissary-work

Prisoners can purchase extra items such as food, drinks and hygiene products from the prison commissary.

The Prison Commissary

Federal prisoners have access to a commissary, where they are permitted to purchase extra items they may need.

What can you buy in prison? Well, a wide variety of items actually. Federal prisoners can get various types of meat (e.g., tuna, mackerel, chili), beverages (e.g., sodas, tea, coffee, drink mixes), snacks (e.g., Little Debbie’s snacks, trail mix, chips), and a plethora of personal items (e.g., clothing, shoes, hygienic items, radios, MP3 players, postage stamps, copy cards).

Only inmates with money in their trust fund account are permitted to shop, as commissary is a personal privilege, not a taxpayer-funded activity. Friends and family can send money to inmates by depositing money in the inmate’s commissary account via a U.S. Postal Money Order to the National Lockbox or electronically through Western Union or MoneyGram.

If you’re wondering how much to send your loved one for commissary, $200 is good to get them started. This will get them the basics, like shoes, a radio, MP3 player and hygiene products. With $50 from home a month, you can buy everything that you need. With $100 per month you can live very well in prison.

If a prisoner’s family can’t send them money, prisoners can use money from their institutional work assignments, which is usually around $10 to $20 per month.

Generally speaking, federal prisoners are permitted to shop once a week on an assigned day. While they can generally purchase what they want, there are limits to some items (e.g., two 12-packs of soda, two ice creams, 20 first class stamps) and overall spending limitations. You are currently permitted to spend up to $360 per month. However, some items, such as copy cards, postage stamps, and over-the-counter medications do not count against this limitation.

To purchase commissary items, all federal prisons use commissary order forms, which you fill out and turn in. Some prisons have you turn the form in at a window in the commissary building at the time of purchase, while others have you submit the form ahead of time. Inmate commissary workers then fill the order and a guard scans the items at a cash register. As the guard does so he or she generally will pass the items to you through a slot (much like a bank teller does).

To transport your items from commissary to your cell, you can use the two laundry bags that were issued when you received your clothing. Prisoners often carry their laundry bags with them when they go to commissary and use them to transport commissary purchases back. If you have too many items to carry yourself, it is typical to offer a friend an ice cream to help you carry your purchases. This can be particularly helpful when purchasing bulky 12-packs of soda.

To protect your purchases, prisoners are assigned a locker located next to their bunk or in their cell (depending on the type of housing). At the commissary you can purchase a combination lock to secure your property. But more important than this, be mindful of your surroundings and who you associate with. Leaving an MP3 player sitting on a chair in the day room during chow is a great way to get it stolen. Likewise, inviting known thieves into your cell, even if you are friendly with them, is also a great way for stamps to come up missing.

Contact us for more information on federal prison commissaries.

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