What is commissary like in Prison?

Shopping in Prison:

Instead of having a store we can access throughout the week, the prison chooses to let inmates shop on one specific weekday and only during a five minute period.  Prior to our assigned day, we are given a one-page sheet of paper that is printed in size nine font, front and back.  We then head to the commissary, hand in our sheet, and wait for our name to be called.

Inmates mark their name, Federal Bureau of Prisons ID # and what they would like on the form.  After our name is called we carry our newly acquired goods back to the unit in our laundry bags – everything around here serves more than one purpose.  Sitting around with everyone unpacking their bounty is 100% the adult equivalent of Halloween.

We are allowed to spend a maximum of $180 once every two weeks.  In light of this, a fair amount of strategy is employed when shopping.  There is a delicate balance of creature comforts vs food.  Tennis shoes, gym shorts, sweats, a nicer toothbrush vs. protein powder, cured meats, packets of fish (mackerel and tuna), soups and condiments.  Lists are curated, adjusted, discussed, amended, costs tallied up, then adjusted again.  It is a full on past-time that usually begins three to four days before your assigned shopping day.

For my unit, our shopping day is Monday morning at 6am.  I was surprised to find that the commissary includes a few varieties of ice cream.  So there we are, inmates ranging in age from 20 to their 60’s, sitting around at 6:30 in the morning, sorting through our new prized possessions and snacks, eating ice cream.  Imagine calling several close friends, heading to the grocery store together as the sun is rising, then walking home with your groceries in a mesh laundry bag slung over your shoulder, to eat ALL the ice cream you bought. There are no freezers here that we have access to, so the standard unit of ice cream consumption is a pint.  Or two pints if that is what someone buys.  I opt for the greek yogurt instead of the ice cream and am thoroughly enjoying this once a week delicacy.  It also makes shopping for yogurt easy when you have one brand and only two flavor options from which to choose.

Protein intake is a major point of discussion throughout the compound, and here are the options available to inmates:

individual protein powder packs – 24g of protein in each

tuna packs

mackerel packs

pepperoni sticks

pork carnitas

beef carnitas

summer sausages

honey turkey logs

diced ham chunks


I was previously unaware you could buy pork or beef in an airtight package with an expiration date far out in to 2023, but it’s actually far more palitable than anticipated.

It’s humbling coming here and having the timeline and financial restrictions the institution imposes on commissary.  I understand why they limit how much we can spend, and why they space it out every two weeks.  But with that policy in place it makes getting ‘settled’ that much more challenging.  Within the first days after your arrival you will be assigned a job – your work duty.  You wear your institutional khakis and steel toe boots to work – everyone is required to do so.  When you get done with work and want to head out to the yard it’s tough to see people walking around in athletic clothes and comfortable gym shoes, while you’re still wearing the 2lb (each pair) boots and thick khaki pants – on a 100 degree summer day.  It’s all part of the experience, I guess.  I’m lucky enough to have money on my books so I was at least able to buy more comfortable clothes to wear when the time came.  In the end, there is another benefit that those who have served a lot of time have earned.  They are set up – 2 pairs of boots (both far more comfortable than the government issued ones), 2 pairs of gym shoes, athletic shorts, t-shirts, sweatpants and sweatshirts, hats and sunglasses, radios and headphones.  There are many creature comforts one gets so accustomed to living with, plus can take for granted, and they’re taken away from you.

You can have them back, but slowly.  And at the expense of other things (food, toiletries, etc).  I can definitley say that I have never had a pair of shoes I appreciate more than the under armour gym shoes I own now – even more than my favorite pair of Allen Edmonds.  I cherish them not just because they are far more comfortable than the boots I would have to be wearing to rec, but because I gave up on many other things to have them.  They were $65 – over one-third of my bi-weekly budget.  I have been here for a month and a half and there are things which are still on my list, items that I’m looking forward to buying once I have the allotment in my monthly spending limit, but at this point in time I’m much more comfortable than I previously was.  It provides good perspective, because if I was at home I would have already ordered anything I needed on Amazon, and done so in the time it took me to type this paragraph.  Yet here I am, still thinking about how good it will be when I get a pair of sweatpants and a black cherry yogurt later this month.  Monday mornings have a whole new level of excitement to them.

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