HOW DOES THE PRISON COMMISSARY SYSTEM WORK?
Prisoners are not allowed to possess money. If they are able to earn money by working a job in prison or their family sends them money, it goes into their personal prisoner trust fund. Most prisoners call this their “commissary money.”
While incarcerated, prisoners are provided meals, basic clothing, and a few very basic personal care items.
Prisoners with good behavior are allowed use their trust fund money to purchase additional supplies from the prison “store” or commissary.
Prisoners look forward to commissary day, which is typically once every two weeks.
Although prisoners may speak of “going to the store,” it really means they take a list of items they want to buy and stand in line at the commissary window. When their commissary order is filled, they walk away with a bag full of precious commodities such as coffee, instant soup, chips, cookies, canned foods, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, writing paper, and stamps.
With approval, prisoners can also buy things like hot pots, clocks, fans, typewriters, shoes, underclothing, and basic over-the-counter medications.
Prison food is very low quality, so life is much better for prisoners who can afford commissary. Although it is against the rules, many prisoners trade some of their commissary supplies to get other things they need or want. If someone does not have money for commissary, they can often earn coffee, soups, or postage stamps by doing other prisoners' laundry, cutting hair, shining shoes, making greeting cards, fixing broken radios, etc. Prisoners in general are very entrepreneurial and there is always a strong barter system going on behind the scenes.