Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Other than the few items of clothing, linens, and towels that you are issued when admitted, all other items must be purchased by the inmate from the commissary.

Each inmate has a commissary account which can receive funds via Western Union or money order (or cash when you arrive, which I did). While I don't believe there is a maximum amount you can have in your account, your monthly spending limit is $290 plus phone calls. Phone calls are limited to 300 minutes per month at $.23 per minute, which is a maximum of $69 per month. (I will write more about phone privileges later.)

Your phone balance resets on the first of every month. Your commissary account resets on a day determined by the last digit in the 5 digit part of your register number, according to the following formula: digit x3+1. In my case my number is 60733, the last digit being 3. Therefore, 3x3 +1 = 10. The 10th day of the month is when my commissary account is reset.

The commissary is in the same old airplane hangar that houses the laundry. Each inmate is assigned one day of the week - Tue, Wed, or Thu - from 4-7p, according to the last two digits of the 5 digit part of your register number as follows: 00-33 Tue, 34-66 Wed, 67-99 Thu.

You can buy items in the following categories (complete order sheet is attached at the bottom of this post):

  • beverages
  • soups and dinners
  • snacks and condiments
  • meat and fish items
  • vitamins
  • health care
  • grooming
  • hygiene
  • hair care, lotion and oils
  • soap and detergent
  • chips, nuts and dried fruit
  • candy
  • spices
  • batteries
  • miscellaneous items

There is also a separate shopping day on Mondays from 4-7p when you can buy stamps, copy machine cards, photo cards or transfer money to your id card, which also functions as a debit card to use in the vending machines in the visiting room (which is a popular TV room for inmates during non-visitation hours).

Also on Mondays from 7-8p you can purchase clothing items such as sweats, t-shirts, shorts and underwear, as well as shavers, beard trimmers, watches, tennis shoes or softball cleats and radio headsets (to listen to the TVs). (see order sheet below)

To order items from the commissary, you fill out a commissary order sheet (again, see below) and insert it into a slot at the commissary after 4p on your assigned day. Then you stand around with everyone else outside and wait for your name to be called. This usually takes 1-2 hours!

When your name is called, you give them your ID and they begin ringing up items on the other side of the window and sliding them through the hole faster than you can retrieve them. There is no "plastic or paper." You place your items in one of your mesh laundry bags, which you better remember to bring with you. You then return to your dorm room and then figure out a way to store them in your limited locker space.

It is difficult to know exactly what the items on the order sheet actually represent, especially for someone who never does any grocery shopping! I thought I was ordering 5 granola bars and received 5 milk cartons of granola! I told them I wanted granola bars, so they substituted 5 boxes of granola bars containing 10 Quaker chewy granola bars each. I guess I have all the granola bars I will need for a while.

It is also common to not get everything you order. And since they don't give you back your order sheet, there is no easy way to confirm it quickly; this is especially a problem with a large order, such as on my first one. There is, however, an ATM-like machine on the side of the building that gives you a transaction history and shows your account balance.

Last night I was finally able to purchase some additional clothing - sweatshirt, t-shirt, and shorts - which I missed last week due to the final episode of Prison Break, which played during the same 1-hour time slot.

I thought the commissary list was pretty comprehensive but I was told that compared to other prisons, it is pretty average - most notably a lack of fresh vegetables. Since I don't cook, though, I won't miss them.

Apparently, though, it included enough ingredients for some of the Hispanic inmates to put together a tortilla fiesta one evening!

(click to enlarge images below)

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