How Does an Inmate Commissary Work?

An inmate commissary is a way for inmates to use money in an account to buy supplies to supplement the basics they are given in prison. Inmates fill out an order form or make a list to buy goods like shampoo, writing paper and stamps.

Commissary days usually take place once every two weeks, and in some prisons, inmates wait in line. When they reach the front of the queue, they fill their commissary order and leave with their items. In other prisons, both staff and inmates work in commissaries to process, pick, bundle and deliver goods to specific areas of the prison, where inmates sign for their items. Inmates in higher-security areas are more limited in their selection of goods.

Because many inmates consider prison food of substandard quality, higher-quality and more-varied commissary food, such as chips, soup and cookies, are highly sought after. Commissary items often find their ways into prison barter systems, even though trading goods violates prison rules. People who lack commissary money may cut other inmates' hair or perform other tasks in exchange for getting their commissary items. Some prisons allow inmates who lack commissary money to buy basic correspondence and hygiene goods, but they begin a debt tab on their commissary account to do so.