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How Much Is Canteen In Prison: A Comprehensive Guide

Prison life is often portrayed in media and pop culture as bleak, violent, and isolating. While aspects of this reputation hold some truth, the realities of life behind bars varies greatly between different facilities, security levels, and experiences of individual inmates.

This article will provide a comprehensive overview of typical prison conditions, daily routines, opportunities for self-improvement, and the costs of confinement. Gaining a fuller understanding of the day-to-day experiences inside correctional facilities can benefit prisoners preparing for incarceration, their loved ones, and society as a whole.

Housing Conditions

Prison facilities range from minimum to maximum security levels. Higher security prisons have more restrictions, tighter controls, and fewer amenities.

Cell Size and Features

In maximum security prisons, inmates are typically housed in small individual cells about 6 by 8 feet (1.8 by 2.4 meters) with a sink, toilet, and bunk. Cells are sparse, with only the most basic furniture like a bed, desk, and storage shelf. Common areas have shower facilities, tables for meals, and rooms for recreation.

Lower security prisons provide more space and privacy. Minimum security facilities may offer dormitory rooms shared between inmates with 12 or more bunkbeds and shared bathrooms. Medium security prisons have double-occupancy cells with two bunks and a shared toilet/sink between two adjacent cells.

Amenities and Services

Cell amenities vary. Most include storage space, a writing surface, toilet, and sink. Maximum security cells have secure furniture bolted down and closely monitored utilities. Televisions are sometimes permitted, usually with basic channels and access restricted during certain times. Radios or MP3 players for music may also be allowed on a limited basis.

Prison facilities offer basic services like laundry, barbershops, commissary stores, law libraries, and medical clinics. Access is scheduled and restricted based on security level. For example, maximum security prisons tightly control inmate movement, so haircuts and medical visits take place inside the cell block rather than allowing movement to other areas of the facility.

Daily Routine

Inmates in different security levels follow broadly similar daily schedules marked by strict discipline and accountability.

Schedule Overview

A typical day may look like:

  • 5:00-8:00 AM – Wake up, breakfast, cell cleaning
  • 8:00 AM-3:00 PM – Vocational or work assignments
  • 12:00 PM – Lunch
  • 3:00-8:00 PM – Recreation time (gym, TV, games)
  • 5:00 PM – Dinner
  • 9:00 PM – Lockdown in cells for the night

Schedules vary between facilities but generally include set times for meals, work, recreation, counts, and lockdowns. Inmates are expected to be in assigned locations and are accounted for throughout the day.

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Correctional facilities have both scheduled and unscheduled lockdowns. During a lockdown all inmates are restricted to their cells or units and their movements and privileges are limited. Unscheduled lockdowns happen in response to disturbances, altercations, or searches. Scheduled lockdowns occur at the end of each day.

Inmates are locked in their cells overnight, usually from around 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM. Additional lockdowns can be imposed as punishment or to control movements during high-risk times like shift changes for prison staff.

Work and Education

Most able-bodied inmates are required to work or participate in prison programs. These activities provide vital upkeep for facilities and skills for inmates.

Prison Labor

Many prisons have work programs for inmates. Jobs can include grounds and maintenance, janitorial services, kitchen duties, laundry, and manufacturing. Certain skilled trades like carpentry may also be available. Compensation is typically meager, with maximum pay capped at $1.15 per day in Federal prisons, for example. Some states offer no pay for prison labor.

Education and Vocational Training

Expanding access to education is a common goal in prison systems. Many facilities offer high school equivalency and adult basic education classes. College-level courses are sometimes available, often through partnerships with accredited universities.

Vocational training programs teach trades like small engine repair, computer coding, plumbing, and cosmetology. Lifelong learning through libraries and instruction offers tools for rehabilitation that inmates can apply to life after release.

Privileges and Rewards

Facilities use incentive programs to encourage good behavior and participation in rehabilitative activities. Positive reinforcement provides motivation and tangible rewards.

Good Time Credits

Most prison systems have ways for inmates to reduce their sentences through good conduct. By avoiding disciplinary infractions and participating in work and education programs, inmates can earn time credits towards early release. Good time policies vary, but generally allow reductions between 10% to 15% of total sentences.


Inmates who follow facility rules can earn privileges like:

  • Additional recreation time
  • TV or radio access
  • Commissary spending limits
  • Private family visits

Higher security prisons tightly control amenities and limit privileges. As inmates transition to lower security classifications, more freedoms are granted.

Visitation and Communication

Maintaining connections with family and loved ones is a lifeline for incarcerated individuals. Prisons recognize visitation and communication as vital for mental health and rehabilitation.

In-Person Visits

Most prisons allow visitation sessions on weekends and holidays. Session length and frequency varies by security level. Maximum security inmates may only have non-contact visits with a physical barrier separating visitors. Lower security prisons allow contact visits. Special family reunification visits of up to 72 hours are sometimes offered to minimum security inmates with good behavior.

Phone Calls and Electronic Messaging

Prisons provide monitored phone systems for inmates to call approved numbers. Calls are time-limited, like 20 minutes per session, with rules preventing three-way calling. Electronic messaging like email may be available with monitoring. The federal prison system offers limited email through TRULINCS at a cost of 5 cents per minute.

Meals and Diet

Food service in correctional facilities has responsibilities to meet basic nutritional needs while operating on extremely limited budgets.

Menu Planning

Daily meals provide around 2,500 calories for adult men, with adjustments for age and medical needs. Sample menus rotate on a 3-week cycle with variety in the main protein/entree. A typical dinner might be spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans, bread, dessert, and milk. Special meals are available for medical or religious diets.

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Food quality in prison is notoriously bad. Bulk preparation for hundreds or thousands of people per meal leads to bland, processed foods high in starch and sodium. Fresh fruit and vegetables are limited. Flavor and nutrition suffer due to cost controls and security concerns about tools like spices.

Special Purchases

To supplement standard cafeteria meals, inmates can purchase food and drinks from the commissary store. Instant foods like ramen noodles, energy bars, and snack cakes offer variety. Prices are inflated with limited choice, but special food is an important morale boost.

Health and Medical Care

Prisons are constitutionally required to provide health care for inmates. However, overcrowding, understaffing, and budget constraints impact their ability to address physical and mental health problems.

Staffing and Services

Each facility employs licensed medical staff like nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, and dentists. Basic services include exams, sick call, medications, emergency treatment, and management of chronic illnesses. Wait times vary based on urgency. Elective procedures may require approval. Overall, access and quality is inferior to that available in the community.

Mental Health

Significant percentages of inmates deal with mental illness or behavioral disorders. Prisons offer counseling, therapy, and psychiatric medication on a limited basis. Confinement tends to exacerbate psychological issues. Isolation policies for problematic inmates are criticized by mental health experts as counter-productive. Better mental health screening and intervention could improve rehabilitation.

Addiction Treatment

Up to 65% of the prison population has substance abuse disorders. Some facilities offer support groups, counseling, and step-down recovery units to help inmates achieve sobriety. Recidivism remains high without sufficient community support post-release, so access to transitional programs is important.

Safety and Violence

The prevalence of violence is higher in prisons than society, but varies by facility. Assault statistics are impacted by reporting practices, gang activity, and policy decisions around use of force.

Inmate-on-Inmate Assaults

Bureau of Justice statistics show around 2% of prisoners are sexually assaulted annually and almost 5% are physically assaulted by peers. Higher security prisons concentrate violent offenders. Weapons fashioned from everyday items contribute to attacks.

Use of Force by Guards

In response to disturbances, guards are authorized to use force. Force can escalate from restraints and pepper spray up to baton strikes and lethal weapons when life is threatened. Overreliance on isolation and physical confrontation instead of de-escalation techniques is an ongoing issue. Great harm can result, as in the 1971 Attica Prison uprising where 9 hostages and 29 inmates were killed.

Gang Activity

Gangs comprising race, geography, or shared interests exert influence in many prisons. Rival groups compete for control over contraband markets, privileges, and territory which spurs violence. Inmates join for protection and profit, with hardcore leaders directing outside criminal activity. Special Housing Units (SHUs) separate gang leaders but may unintentionally increase radicalization.

Transitioning Out of Prison

Re-entry into the community from prison is extremely difficult. Failure to successfully transition accounts for the over 50% recidivism rate in released prisoners.

Barriers to Re-Entry

Inmates face obstacles like:

  • Stigma of a criminal record
  • Lack of savings or financial support
  • No housing or employment
  • Loss of ID documents and benefits
  • Poor physical or mental health
  • Substance abuse issues

If core needs around money, housing, and healthcare are not met, relapse and reoffending become likely.

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Transitional Programs

Model programs provide support like:

  • Job training and placement
  • Transitional housing and transportation
  • Treatment for mental health and addiction
  • Mentorship and community resource access
  • Legal counseling to resolve fines, damages, child support

Case management improves outcomes. But funding shortages force many prisons to deliver only the bare minimum before release.

Table of Notable Crimes and Convictions

InmateCrime Convicted ForSentence ReceivedQuote on Conviction
Bernie MadoffPonzi scheme fraud150 years in prison“I live in a tormented state knowing the pain and suffering I have created.”
Joaquín “El Chapo” GuzmanDrug trafficking, murder conspiracyLife in prison + 30 years“There was no justice here.”
Dylann RoofHate crime mass murderDeath penalty“I still feel like I had to do it.”
Ted KaczynskiMail bombing murdersLife in prison“Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.”
James “Whitey” BulgerRacketeering, murder2 life sentences + 5 years“This is the most unfair trial in American history.”

How much is canteen or commissary in prison?

Prison commissaries sell food, hygiene items, clothing, electronics, and other items to inmates. Prices are inflated compared to outside stores. Typical markups are 30% to 50% above retail costs. A ramen noodle pack that costs 25 cents in a grocery may sell for 75 cents in the prison store. Popular commissary options are a vital diversion from prison’s bleak routine but quickly add up given the low wages. Inmates without outside support often subsist on the bare prison rations alone.

What type of jobs do prisoners do?

Inmate jobs help maintain the prison facilities and fulfill essential functions. Common options include laundry, kitchen duty, janitorial, groundskeeping, maintenance, clerical work, tutors, peer mentors, library workers, and manufacturing. Certain vocational trades like carpentry, plumbing, and auto repair may offer valuable career training. Compensation averages about $1 per day in maximum security prisons up to $3 per day for highly skilled labor.

How many prison meals are served per day?

Most prisons serve three meals per day. Breakfast is typically served around 6 am, lunch between 11 am to 1 pm, and dinner as early as 4 pm but no later than 5:30 pm. Weekend and holiday schedules may vary. Special medical or religious diet accommodations like vegetarian options are provided but must be formally requested.

Can you make phone calls in prison?

Yes, inmates can make phone calls to approved family and friends while incarcerated. Calls are time-limited, like 20 minutes, and monitored by staff. Several security precautions are taken, including no three-way calling and number blocking to prevent unapproved contact. Calls must be arranged in advance so recipients know to expect them. The federal prison phone system TRULINCS charges 5 cents per minute.

What happens when a prisoner dies?

When an inmate dies in prison, officials notify next of kin about options for burial or cremation. Unclaimed remains may be buried at public expense. The prison is obligated to conduct an internal investigation into the causes and circumstances to determine if foul play was involved. An autopsy is performed. Further investigation or referral to outside agencies can follow depending on the findings and status of the deceased.


While prison life varies for different facilities and individuals, common realities exist. Strict routine, limited amenities, violence, isolation, and lack of freedom characterize the inmate experience. Rehabilitative opportunities to build skills and change behaviors expand in lower security prisons based on displayed progress.

But the deprivations of confinement should not be minimized. Nor should we ignore inequities in sentencing policy, abuse, and lack of adequate transitional programming that trap generations in cycles of recidivism. Understanding the diverse challenges inside prison walls is necessary to advocate for reforms that maximize public safety and social justice.

Prison Inside Team

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About us

We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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