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Inmate Commissary 101 – Everything You Want to Know

Inmate Commissary 101 – Everything You Want to Know

I like to go shopping. As a teenager, I lived the days where I could go to the mall and explore all the cool stores. As an adult, I can get lost in Amazon for hours. Finding something special for yourself to spend money on can be fun, whether you’re shopping for ingredients for your favorite meal at the grocery store or searching for the perfect pair of shoes online.

That feeling doesn’t change when you’re in prison. Nothing ㅡ, I mean nothing like a commissary. Read on to find out everything you wanted to know about the Prisoner Commissary.

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • What is the Prisoner Commissary?
  • What can I buy at the prison commissary?
  • When will inmates get commissary?
  • How to deposit into an inmate commissary account

What is the Prisoner Commissary?

Prisoner Commissaryㅡ Also known as Canteen or Prison Storeㅡ, where prisoners can buy a variety of different items to make their stay more comfortable in prison.

Prisons issue very few items to prisoners. In terms of clothing, you can wear three outfits (for example, a khaki or orange top and bottom), pajamas, a few pairs of underwear, a few pairs of socks, a bra or t-shirt, boots, and a coat.

They will also provide you with basic hygiene items such as a bar of soap, a comb, a toothbrush and toilet paper. Women’s prisons also provide sanitary pads. The canteen also provides you with three meals a day.

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 a month to spend at the store ($8.50 if you had a high school diploma), but if you owed court fees, restitution, or the Victim Compensation Fund, they Only $5 will be given to you, and the difference will be used to pay what you owe.

You can also get a “salaried job” where you can earn anywhere from $10 to $50 a month. The only other way to raise money for a prison store is to have your family or friends “deposit money into your books,” which is prison slang for depositing money into your commissary account.

What can I buy at the prison commissary?

The commissary is like a mini Walmart. You can buy everything from food to electronics, and in my prison most of the items available were picked by the mess committee, a group of prisoners.

I still remember the canteen list because I look at it every week. I won’t list everything that’s available for purchase, but I’ll share some of the most popular.

Let’s start with the items that are prison currency. Prisoners have their own economy within the prison walls, and since they do not have access to cash, they use a barter system. Items used for currency were postage stamps, soup (ramen), soda, and cigarettes (you could still buy tobacco in prison when I was incarcerated).

All of these items can be purchased at the commissary, but that’s just the beginning. When it comes to food, you can get spaghetti, chips, crackers, bags of chicken and tuna, cheese, crackers, refried beans, poptarts, and tortilla shells.

Condiments such as mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard, as well as spices are also available.

We also host fundraisers for different organizations at the camp where you can buy chips, candy, sandwiches and bags of frozen veggies.

Available beverages are coffee, tea, lemonade, orange juice and soda.

I should add that I live in a dorm style house which has a lounge with a microwave. You wouldn’t believe that inmates could put meals together with mess hall stuff. Honestly, I considered writing a prison cookbook because some of the food is incredible.

Other items available are electronics such as televisions, CD players, headphones, and typewriters (yes, they still make typewriters). You can 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 (excluding hoodies), slacks, shorts, socks, tennis shoes and underwear.

There are also hygiene items such as small toothbrushes, razors, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, cosmetics, hair dryer, curling iron, comb, deodorant and soap.

Every prison is different in terms of available items, but the basics are pretty common no matter which prison you’re in.If you want to see actual commissary listings in federal prisons Click here.

When will inmates get commissary?

We are allowed to go to the store once a week. Also, the days of the week you go to the store are determined by your housing unit. Everything I did in prison was computerized. Each housing unit has touchscreen kiosks where you can place your order in the days leading up to store opening day.

On store day at your housing unit, they will call you to the commissary and everyone will rush there to get their groceries. Canteen staff will pull your order out and put it in a mesh bag, then they will call your name and hand you the item.

As a soda junkie, I always order up to two 12-packs a week. My canteen bag was too heavy, and once I broke my finger while carrying it from the canteen to the dormitory. Carrying those monster bags is brutal, but totally worth it.

I’m lucky because I have family and friends sending me money every week so I can buy whatever I want. There is a monthly spending limit of $350 (excluding major items). However, most people live on a tight budget of around $10 to $20 a week.

Shop day is always the best day of the week. The line for the microwave is long because everyone has something to cook. Everyone is always in a good mood on store day, something I look forward to every week.

How to deposit into an inmate commissary account

The process for depositing money into an inmate commissary depends on the prison. Most prisons have a mail service where you can mail a check or money order. They also have an electronic option where you can deposit money into their account using a debit or credit card using sites like JPay.

You can find prison insight. You just need to click on the prison where your loved one is being held and you will find details about sending money to that specific facility.

And, there you have it. That is Prisoner Commissary 101. When you’re an inmate, there’s nothing better than seeing someone deposit money into your account for you to go to the store. No amount can be too small, and it will give prisoners the feeling that they have not been forgotten.

Are you surprised what prisoners can buy from the commissary? Let us know in the comments below.


FCI Commissary List