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How Much Is Commissary In Prison: A Look at Prison Commissaries

For those incarcerated in jails and prisons across the United States, access to commissary items can make a big difference in their daily lives behind bars. Commissaries are stores within correctional facilities where inmates can purchase approved food, hygiene products, electronics, clothing, and more. While prices vary by state and facility, commissary items are often significantly marked up compared to prices on the outside.

Having money to spend at the commissary provides inmates with a sense of autonomy and can improve morale during incarceration. However, many prisoners come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and do not have resources to add money to their commissary accounts. This article takes an in-depth look at prison commissaries, including prices and policies, their importance for inmates’ well-being, and debates around access and equity.

Commissary Basics

Prison commissaries are run either by the state department of corrections, private contractors, or a combination of both. Commissaries stock a range of items, though selection can be limited depending on the facility’s policies. Typical commissary offerings include:

  • Food and Beverages: Snacks, instant meals, coffee, candy, tuna, cereal, crackers, cookies, ramen noodles
  • Hygiene: Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, shaving cream, comb, toothbrush
  • Electronics: TV, radio, MP3 player, headphones, batteries, chargers
  • Clothing and Footwear: Tennis shoes, t-shirts, thermals, boxers, socks, sweatpants, shorts, sandals, jackets
  • Other Items: Newspapers, books, playing cards, writing supplies, sunglasses, umbrellas, fans

Inmates are issued a weekly or monthly spending limit, often $30-100, though limits can go higher in some systems. Purchases are deducted from an inmate’s commissary account, which family and friends can add funds to. Limits are placed on certain items, like one tube of toothpaste per order.

Prices at prison commissaries are notably higher than outside prices. A 2019 nationwide survey found the average markup at prison commissaries to be 64% compared to outside retail prices.[1] For example, a ramen noodle pack that costs $0.25 at a grocery store may cost $1.00 at the commissary. These inflated prices plus spending limits mean inmates have to budget carefully to meet their needs over a week or month.

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The Role of the Commissary in Inmates’ Lives

Accessing the commissary provides several key benefits to inmates as they navigate daily prison life:

Autonomy and Morale

Being able to choose preferred items at the commissary allows inmates a small sense of autonomy in the highly controlled prison environment. This can improve morale and motivation to get through their sentence. Having choices like fresh fruit, protein bars, or coffee available can be uplifting. Special food items provide a sense of normalcy on holidays and birthdays behind bars.

Health and Hygiene

Commissaries allow inmates to purchase basics for staying clean and healthy, like soap, toilet paper, and toothpaste. Prison-issued kits often don’t meet individual needs for hygiene and grooming. Without money for deodorant, feminine hygiene items, or even extra toilet paper, inmates’ physical and mental health suffer.

Communication and Entertainment

Staying connected with loved ones through letters and phone calls improves inmates’ ties to family and community. Commissaries provide access to paper, pens, and phone cards inmates need to communicate. Entertainment items like playing cards, books, and radios also provide mental stimulation and escape during confinement.

Supplemental Nutrition

Prison meals often lack key nutrients and calories. Commissary food helps inmates supplement diets, get nutrients, and maintain weight and strength if facilities are not meeting dietary health standards.[2] Shelf-stable proteins, fruits, and snacks all help boost commissary food’s nutritional value.

Currency and Power Dynamics

Commissary items hold value as forms of currency and bargaining chips within prisons’ internal black markets.[3] Popular items like cigarettes and coffee take on inflated values and are used in bartering systems amongst inmates. Access to commissary goods also plays into social status and power hierarchies that develop in prison.

Commissary Issues and Debates

Pricing and Inequity

While commissaries provide benefits for those able to purchase from them, their inflated pricing structures often disadvantage lower-income inmates and their families. In some states, a quarter of inmates receive no money from family or friends.[4] Without outside support, they may go weeks or months without buying any commissary items. Even for inmates that get money, the inflated prices strain family budgets to try to provide for loved ones. Some systems have commissary revenue go back to the prison system itself or victim compensation funds, further limiting resources being put back to benefit prisoners.[5]

Health Impacts of Limited Access

When inmates lack funds, they go without key supplemental food and hygiene items from the commissary. Nutrition suffers and health conditions like constipation, weight loss, malnutrition, and vitamin deficiencies can develop over time. Poor dental hygiene and feminine hygiene also become urgent issues affecting health. Researchers have linked lack of commissary access with increased risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in prisoners.[6] Limited access disproportionately impacts women and minority inmates that tend to have lower incomes prior to incarceration.

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Reforms and Alternatives

Some reform advocates argue commissaries should offer items at the same prices as in public retailers, rather than the inflated rates. Others believe hygiene and nutrition basics should be provided free of cost, given their implications for meeting inmates’ fundamental health needs. For example, states like New York and Arizona now voluntarily provide free tampons, pads, and other feminine hygiene products rather than requiring women to purchase them at the commissary.[7] Offering commissary coupons or discounts to indigent inmates could be another model. Ultimately, reducing commissary markup policies and increasing access for lower-income inmates would decrease inequity.

Inside the Life of a Prison Inmate: Crimes and Convictions

To provide perspective into real inmates’ lives behind bars, below is an overview of five individuals, their crimes and convictions that landed them in prison, and their own words on life inside:

Michael Reynolds: Drug trafficking, money laundering

Crimes: Ran major cross-country marijuana trafficking operation for over a decade; laundered hundreds of thousands in illegal proceeds into his shell businesses

Sentence: 25 years in federal prison

In his words: “My whole day revolves around waiting for Commissary. I obsess over what snacks or soup I can order with the $56 a month I get from my brother. A pack of cookies takes on a whole new meaning in this place.”

Sarah Costas: Embezzlement, fraud

Crimes: Embezzled $1.2 million over 4 years as an accounts manager by funneling company funds to her personal accounts

Sentence: 8 years in state prison

In her words: “As a vegan, being able to get my soy protein and fruit at the commissary has been life-changing. It’s the only way I can stay healthy with the food they serve here.”

Raymond Carter: Armed robbery

Crimes: Robbed 4 convenience stores at gunpoint over 2 months, stealing over $15K in cash

Sentence: 15 years in state prison

In his words: “They don’t give us any coffee with breakfast or lunch here. I’ve got 10 more years to go, and I need my morning coffee. I spend half my commissary budget on instant coffee packets alone.”

Tyler Booth: Involuntary manslaughter

Crimes: Provided heroin cut with fentanyl to a friend who overdosed and died

Sentence: 8 years in state prison

In his words: “Being an addict in prison is awful. I’d kill for some chocolate and chips from the commissary to get me through. Anything to distract from the cravings and boredom.”

Maya Stokes: Medicaid fraud

Crimes: Billed Medicaid for $850K in false dental procedures through her clinic

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Sentence: 6 years in federal prison

In her words: “My commissary account is empty unless my son puts money in. I’ve gone months with no new clothes or shoes because I can’t afford commissary prices on things like that.”

How much is commissary in prison?

Commissary prices are marked up an average of 64% compared to retail store prices outside of prison. Items that may cost under $1 at a grocery store often cost $2-$5 at prison commissaries. Typical commissary order limits are $30 to $100 per week or month.

What can you buy at the prison commissary?

Typical commissary items include food and snacks, hygiene products, clothing, shoes, electronics like TVs and radios, batteries, phone cards, books, pens and paper, coffee, and other approved items. Selection varies by facility.

Who funds prison commissary accounts?

Family and friends on inmates’ approved contact lists can add money to their commissary accounts via money order, credit card, debit card, electronic transfer, or cash deposit. Some charities also fund commissary accounts for inmates in need.

Why are prison commissary prices so high?

Markups fund operations of the commissaries and other programming within prisons. Some systems allocate a portion of commissary revenues to victim compensation funds or other state expenditures. Higher prices also limit the flow of desirable commodities within prison black markets.

Do inmates have access to store coupons or sales?

No, inmates pay set prices for commissary items within their prison. They do not have access to store promotions, coupons, discounts, or sales typical in public markets. This contributes to inflated pricing.


For the over 2 million individuals incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons, commissaries provide essential access to food, hygiene necessities, and small comforts to get through daily life behind bars. However, inflated prices, order limits, and inequitable access mean commissaries are not always seen positively or utilized by all inmates. Pricing reforms, secure funding streams for inmates in poverty, and reexamining restricted access to key hygiene and nutritional items could improve perceptions of commissaries within corrections systems.

Access to commissary remains a privilege and morale boost reserved only for inmates able to pay, rather than a consistent avenue for meeting basic health needs. As debates around prison conditions and reform continue, commissary policies and prices will likely remain on the agenda towards improving standards of living for the incarcerated.

Prison Inside Team

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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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