Dining In: Inmate Commissaries

Inmate commissaries


Prison and jail inmates earn cold, hard cash (a few cents per hour) for the work they perform during their incarceration. They’re also allowed to receive money from family and friends.

However, prisoners are never allowed to touch even a single coin, so all cash received is placed into a special account. In fact, it is a violation for an inmate to possess currency of any type. Punishment for currency possession could lead to time in isolation.

And, since inmates are not permitted to wander outside the gates for a night on the town, they’re allowed to shop, normally once each week, at the prison or jail commissary. There are a variety of items available at these mini supermarkets for prisoners, ranging from candy bars and soup to tennis shoes and underwear.

Inmates fill out a commissary slip (see below) checking off all the items they’d like to purchase, and then present the document to the commissary clerk.

The store is usually staffed by corrections employees and inmate laborers who fill the orders.

Since the risk of shoplifting and robbery is a little on the high side, the stores are not open to the general inmate population. All transactions are conducted through a tiny window.

The customers hand over their slips and bank-card-type ID cards to the clerk who first swipes the card to see if the inmate has enough money in his account to purchase the desired items. If the funds are in place the clerk then fills the order.



Frackville Pennsylvania prison commissary slip

Prisons do not allow products to be sold in metal, hard plastic, or glass containers, therefore all items are packaged in jail-friendly cartons, such as these Rip-N-Ready foil packets sold by companies that deal exclusively with jails and prisons. Inmates open the packages by tearing the top of the containers.



Other products are packaged in paper, light plastic, thin foil, or cardboard.


Hygiene products, clothing, and some electronic entertainment devices are also available for purchase.



Normally, clothing items must all be of one designated type. No colors or markings.


Electronic devices must be made of see-through plastic to allow staff easy viewing of the internal areas.

*Microwaves, instant hot water devices, and ice machines are normally available for inmate use.

*Villa and RTD images

9 replies
  1. SZ
    SZ says:

    Call me hard nosed, I just think they should only receive proper nutrition, hygiene, non criminal reading, education and isometrics. Even for small crimes. Let them see this is it. I see a country club.

  2. Terry
    Terry says:

    When we had the Criminal Thinking seminar at the Civilian Police Academy, there were a lot of things they told us that didn’t match tv and the movies — like they get 3 minutes to eat and no talking allowed. That the library is about 1 shelf of books, and the law books are few and out of date.

  3. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Terry – It’s true that inmates can use the cash they bring to prison, but there is a set weekly spending limit. Therefore, even if the inmate had a trillion dollars in his account he would only be able to spend up to the maximum allowed by the policy.

    Spending limits vary, but they’re normally around $50 – $100 weekly. Phone calls are also deducted from the account funds, but they’re not applied to the spending limit. Other items can be exempt as well, such as underwear and socks. However, prisoners are only allowed to have a certain number of clothing items, such as two pair of sweat pants, five pair of underwear, etc.

  4. Terry
    Terry says:

    Our paper ran a similar article to debunk the story that Casey Anderson was eating shrimp cocktail in prison. It also said that if prisoners had money before going to prison, they could use it, so some were quite well off. I don’t know that the link will work here (and the direct link is a very long one, so I’ll email it to Lee and see if he can post it. Don’t know if the comments take the only html code I know, which is how to create a link.

  5. Carla F
    Carla F says:

    My 13 year old son has a see-through clock radio like the one pictured above. Wait ’til I tell him they were actually designed for inmates. 🙂

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