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What is Commissary in Prison? A Comprehensive Guide

Prison commissary, sometimes referred to as the prison store, is an important service provided in correctional facilities. Commissary allows incarcerated individuals to purchase approved items they may need or want during their sentence. This comprehensive guide will explain what commissary is, how it works, its importance in prisons, and address common questions.

What is Prison Commissary?

Prison commissary is a store located within a correctional facility where incarcerated individuals can purchase approved items using funds from their personal inmate accounts. Commissary provides access to food, hygiene products, clothing, electronics, and other items an inmate may find useful during their sentence.

Commissaries are usually operated by third-party vendors who contract with the prison. Profits made from commissary sales are often used to fund inmate programs and services. While commissary provides a valuable service, items are sold at inflated prices compared to retail stores outside of prison.

How Does Prison Commissary Work?

Inmates access the commissary by providing a written order form checked against their account balance. Purchasing limits may apply to prevent hoarding. Once an order is processed, items are delivered to the inmate’s housing unit. Here is an overview of how the commissary process typically works:

  • Inmate Accounts – Each inmate has a personal account funded by wages from prison jobs, family deposits, or other sources. A percentage is deducted for restitution, court fees, etc. The balance can be spent at the commissary.
  • Commissary Order Forms – Order forms are provided to inmates on a regular schedule. They select items within their account balance and add up the cost. Correctional staff verify the funds are available before approving each order.
  • Order Processing – Vendor employees process commissary orders, pull items from inventory, and deliver orders to the inmates’ housing units per the facility’s schedule.
  • Item Delivery – Officers deliver commissary orders directly to inmates in their cells or bunk area. Quantity and contents are verified before distribution.
  • Account Deduction – The total cost for commissary items is deducted from the inmate’s account balance after delivery.
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Importance of Prison Commissary

While it may seem like a convenience, prison commissary serves some important purposes:

  • Supplemental Food – Provides nutritional variety beyond standard prison meals.
  • Comfort Items – Toiletries, books, electronics, clothing, etc. improve quality of life.
  • Sense of Autonomy – Choosing commissary items gives inmates a small sense of freedom and normalcy.
  • Behavior Incentive – Good behavior may allow higher commissary spending limits. This helps maintain order.
  • Revenue Source – Profits fund inmate programs, services, and facility needs. Commissary provides value to the prison system.

Overall, the benefits commissary provides for inmate morale, privilege incentives, and funding outweigh the costs of operating it. For these reasons, commissary is considered an essential service in correctional facilities today.

Typical Commissary Items

While selection varies by facility, these are common categories of items available in a prison commissary:

Food and Drinks – Snacks, instant coffee, candy, tuna, ramen noodles, chips, and other foods.

Toiletries – Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, shaving items, dental floss, lip balm, and feminine hygiene products.

Clothing and Shoes – Undergarments, socks, shoes, shirts, pants, shorts, hats, gloves, and basic accessories.

Electronics – TVs, radios, tablets, headphones, alarm clocks, batteries, and chargers.

Household Items – Pens, paper, playing cards, games, sunglasses, laundry items, bowls, fans, hot pots, and cup/mug.

Over-the-Counter Medicine – Pain relievers, antacids, allergy medicine, cough drops, eye drops (non-prescription).

The specific approved items depend on the facility’s policies. Most prohibit tobacco, weapons, alcohol, or illegal substances. Prices are marked up substantially more than retail rates.

Commissary Purchasing Limits

To prevent abuse of commissary privileges or inmates acquiring excessive contraband, weekly purchasing limits apply. While specifics vary, here are some typical limitations:

  • $30 to $180 maximum order amount per week
  • Limits on electronics – one TV, tablet, radio, etc.
  • 10 magazines max per month
  • 5 packs of cigarettes or tobacco per week
  • 3 pairs of shoes max
  • Limits on packaged food items – 36 packs ramen noodles, 36 sodas, etc.
  • 5 decks of cards max
  • 2 hot pots max
  • 1 fan max
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The warden or commissary committee may adjust restrictions at their discretion. Limits aim to provide reasonable access without allowing abuse or excess.

How often can I order from commissary?

Most facilities allow orders once per week, either submitted on paper order forms or electronically. Make sure you review the ordering schedule for your institution.

When do I receive my commissary order?

Delivery days will vary but expect 48-72 hours after submitting your order before receiving your items. Large facilities may take longer.

What if my order doesn’t arrive?

Notify the officer in your housing unit if your delivery doesn’t arrive on the scheduled day. They can contact commissary staff to determine the issue.

Can I return or exchange an item?

Once received, commissary items cannot be returned or exchanged. Make sure to carefully review your order before submitting.

How do I check my account balance?

Your current account balance should be listed on the order form or commissary ordering website. You can also request account statements from the business office.

Can my family or friends order items for me?

No, only funds can be deposited into your account by approved visitors or through money transfer services. Inmates must order commissary items themselves.

What if I don’t have enough funds for an order?

Commissary orders must be fully funded at the time you submit the request. If short on funds, prioritize essentials until your account balance increases.


In summary, prison commissary acts as an exclusive store providing inmates access to food, clothing, electronics, toiletries, and other approved items during incarceration. Commissary access is an important privilege that improves quality of life and provides autonomy. While practices vary across institutions, the ordering, purchasing limit, delivery, and accounting processes are generally standardized. When used responsibly, prison commissary is a valuable service benefiting both inmates and the correctional facility system.

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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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