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).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Commissary Changes

[This was written in late May while in prison. While the topic is not so timely anymore, it does illustrate some of the small practical issues that the prison staff have to respond to.]

Effective May 21, 2007, the commissary schedule changes. The waiting times have become prohibitively long while waiting for your "order" to be processed. (See previous post for details on how the commissary works.)

The new schedule has added one hour from 11a-12p Monday-Thursday. This corresponds to the lunch hour for inmates who work on the camp or at Saufley Field (the base the prison is located on), such as myself. Approximately 70% of the camp works offsite so this does not affect them directly, however, if the other 30% utilize this new one hour window, it should relieve the congestion during the 4p-7p shopping time the 70% must use after they return from their work detail.

Thus, while the change does create a decision (do I shop or eat lunch??), I think this is a good change. In addition to relieving the congestion for the later time slots, it gives you an opportunity to "quick shop" for items you may have run out of without having to wait for your designated shopping day to arrive (Tue, Wed, or Thu).

Also, if you reach your $290 spending limit before the end of your "reset" day (the 10th of the month for me), it allows you to buy stuff immediately on the first weekday after your account resets, which is nice also.

As welcome as these changes are, I am not sure they were done for our benefit. I don't want to give into the cynicism that pervades prison life (a cynicism that assumes that no decision is made by the BOP with the inmate's welfare in mind), but there was an accompanying memo that reinforces the specific boundaries of the commissary waiting area.

The commissary is operated out of an old naval airplane hangar located on the corner of the prison camp adjacent to other Saufley Field buildings where civilians work. [See second map at bottom of the page -- click link to enlarge. The commissary is in the upper left hand corner --northwest -- of the camp.] Inmates are supposed to remain outside of the commissary door under a small (12'x24') sheltered patio on a small area near the dumpsters (!) next to the patio.

Given the increased population of the camp and the limited time to shop, it is is impossible to keep the inmates congregated in such a small waiting area. As a result, they often overflow into the side street (Sprague Ave), occasionally obstructing cars who are leaving work at the end of the day (remember, shopping is after the 4p count -- usually around 4:30p -- till 7p). I suspect this makes some of the drivers, especially the women, uneasy and the camp received complaints.

Furthermore, having such a large number of inmates (100-125) congregated on the edge of the camp boundaries, separated only from the large base by a line on the ground, creates an opening for the import of contraband.

Whether the schedule changes are designed to make life easier on the inmates or address security concerns, I don't know. Nonetheless, the changes are welcome.

[UPDATE: As it turns out, the added lunch hour shopping time was not quite as beneficial as I had hoped. I had assumed that we could shop on any, or all, of the days that the commissary was open at lunch. Indeed it seemed that way for a while as "Tank" and I would stop by after eating lunch and buy a pint of Blue Bell ice cream for $1.50 and sit in the shade before returning for work. Ok, maybe it is not quite as poignant as that scene in Shawshank Redemption where "Red" and the other inmates drank beer on the rooftop they were tarring, courtesy of Andy Dufresne's tax knowledge but its the best I could do!

Unfortunately, however, it turns out the prison was still "officially" enforcing the rule that you can only shop once per week and you were still restricted to your designated shopping day. In other words, if my shopping day was Tuesday, then I can shop at lunch on Tue or later that afternoon but not both shifts or on another day. In practice, it actually depends on which of the 3 COs are running the commissary that week. Running the commissary is a miserable and tedious job -- no one like it. Some are stickler for the rules; others just want to get the orders placed as quickly as possible and don't want to waste time trying to figure out whether you already shopped that day or whether this is your shopping day or not (your shopping day is determined by the last two digits of your inmate id number so it is easy to tell but not so easy to remember if you already ordered at lunch and are back again).

The bigger risk (as I recounted in my 11th Week Summary) is that you could submit your order at lunch and it might not get filled before you have to return to lunch, in which case you have wasted your order for the week. If you aren't there when your order is filled, you are done for the week. Not cool. Trust me, they don't care; it's not their problem. Those were the exact words -- "not my problem" -- I heard when I attempted to shop again that afternoon after I had to leave my order at lunch to return to work. This was to be my last shopping day in prison because the following week the commissary was closed for inventory and the week after I was leaving. This was the only time I ever submitted a "cop-out" to complain about a policy. ]


Anonymous said...

Bill: $ 290 how long will this last, is this enough for the month as allowance? Turns out to be $ 10 a day, so you could have a decent microwave meal a day and the rest going towards the personal hygene products. Please explain is everyone there have $ 290 per month available. that comes to $ 3480.00 a year. I want to know the % of people that may be poor and have no money at all. How did you manage the $ 290 a month in terms of a your purchases? How does a cop out work (calling in sick at work), to me the logical thing sounds like they don't provide enough time due to the lines to fill orders so its better to cop out every month and fill that order for the whole month? Please explain.

Anonymous said...

From what I heard at FPC Yankstown, SD, Not every inmate has a commisory account. Some inmates don't have anyone from the outside to deposit or send money, these people are outkasts. They are dirt POOR.

Bill Bailey said...

$290 is generally enough for commissary purchases. Initially, you need to buy some basic assets such as tennis shoes and sweats, microwavable tupperware containers and plastic cutlery, water bottle, etc. so it is hard the first month to buy everything you need to get settled.

As for food purchases after that, $290 should be enough unless you don't want to eat in the cafeteria at all. Some inmates only eat what they buy at the commissary and they are very creative at cooking. Also, it is not uncommon for inmates who work in the kitchen to smuggle out food supplies that cannot be purchased in the commissary.

A significant number (I don't have a percentage) do not have any money other than the $17 or so dollars they earn each month working. Some perform services (laundry, cleaning, cutting hair, etc) for other inmates in exchange for food or items although this is technically against the rules.

I had one roommate who literally "hustled" for all his money. This usually meant poker but he was also adept at creating his own store. He would literally rent other inmates lockers and stockpile commissary items and then sell them to other inmates at a markup. Basically, he was a convenience store... like a 7-Eleven. Inmates are very resourceful.

A "cop-out" is simply any request or complaint to a staff person. Usually it is submitted to your unit counselor but, depending on the issue, it could be submitted to someone else.

My "cop-out" was a complaint that I was not allowed to shop again after I had to leave before my order was filled. While my complaint was addressed, I was still not allowed to shop; it was considered my mistake for walking away from an open order.

There is enough time to shop at the commissary in the evenings but you may have to wait 1-2 hours. They will stay open long enough to fill every order submitted by 6:30p so you are guaranteed to get your commissary order filled as long as it is submitted by 6:30p and you wait long enough.

The only problem with the lunch hour shopping is that you have to back to work by noon, so it can get tight as to whether your order gets filled or not.

You can try to shop for an entire month in one commissary visit but you may not have enough room in your locker to store everything you buy. Twice a month is very doable though if you don't want to wait in line every week. Also, if you only need a few items a particular week, you can just have another inmate add it to his order and you can pay him back by buying equivalent items for him next time you go to the commissary. Inexplicably, even this is technically against the rules but it is done all the time.

Bill Bailey said...

There are definitely inmates who have no one on the outside to send money to their commissary account. However, I believe every inmate has a commissary account because every federal inmate, certainly those in prison camps but maybe not SuperMax, work and get paid at least $.12/hr which is deposited into their commissary account so even if no one on the outside puts money in, BOP puts money in each month if you work.

That does not mean they are outcasts on the inside. Prison has its own underground economy and black market. While technically against the rules, the COs generally seem to turn a blind eye to "innocent" transactions that are clearly designed simply to make life better for everyone. (For example, when I checked out of prison, I left a lot of my stuff with different guys. The CO handling my discharge clearly knew that but knew there was nothing sinister about it.)

Inmates are incredibly resourceful. Many inmates who have nothing from the outside figure out ways to get things either by providing services to other inmates or otherwise hustling (e.g. gambling, although God help you if you can't pay your losses).

There is definitely a class system in prison that somewhat mimics what goes on in the outside world. Those inmates (typically white collar) who have resources can literally hire other inmates to take care of them (do their laundry, make their bed, clean their room, cook their food, whatever). In higher security prisons, you would pay other inmates (actually, gangs) to protect you.

Anonymous said...

Is there a microwave in every room or a general area? I saw where it was posted a prisoner could have a microwave meal. What does a prisoner do all day if he doesn't work? Can he not work if he doesn't want to? Is there anyway to track a prisoner's disciplinary actions while he is incarcerated? We have a family member placed at Pensacola and we were just wondering. Thanks

Bill Bailey said...

There is a microwave in the common areas of each dorm. There are no pre-packaged microwavable meals that you can purchase in the commissary. All inmates must work in Pensacola... it is a workcamp. If you cannot or will not work, you will be transferred to another prison. I don't believe an inmate's disciplinary record is public. I don't know any way to look it up.