My Daily Journal in Federal Prison

Day 23

I got my shop on today.  Wednesday is the day that I’m allowed to shop at the commissary.  The commissary, aka “the store,” is a privilege (as I’m told be the Warden’s memo) and it’s where inmates are allowed to purchase “quality” and “name brand” goods — food, clothing, and OTC medication & hygiene products.  Considering that the compound was on lockdown last week, and that Monday was a Federal holiday, I was anticipating a line of epic proportions…and I was not disappointed.

I entered the queue shortly after 11:00 a.m. (at which time the line was already spilling out the door) and I didn’t leave “the store” until nearly 2:00 p.m.  But, let me ‘splain a few things before I get to my shopping experience.  (Oh yeah, and lest I forget — I missed the best lunch of the week due to this line situation:  cheeseburger with fresh-cut fries, salad w/ Italian dressing, and cake with orange frosting).

Each inmate is provided with 3 square meals a day, if he should choose to eat them in the Chow Hall.  Each inmate is provided with all of the T.P. his ass could desire (distributed on Wednesdays and which the inmate must carry on his person every time he visits the loo).  Each inmate is provided with basic, generic Bob Barker hygiene products — soap, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream, etc.  Each inmate is provided with 2-3 uniform shirts (khaki), 2-3 uniform pants (also khaki), about half a dozen white tube socks, 3 t-shirts (brown), 3 boxers (brown), and 1 pair of steel-toed work boots…all of these items are typically about 2-3 sizes too big.  So, basically, we all walk around looking like most of middle America anyway.  We also get a laundry bag, a bath towel, two wash cloths, 2 blankets, and two sheets.  And, If you should choose to use it — free laundry with next day service.

So, you may ask, what’s to buy at the commissary?  And, I reply, what’s not to buy?  I think that “quality” and “name brand” might be a little of a stretch to describe their products, but if you want better than average hygiene products — e.g., shavers that won’t slice through your corrotid (sp?) artery, this is the place to come.  You want running shoes, b-ball kicks, or cross trainers?  They got ’em.  Shorts, tees, tank-tops?  Yup.  Sunglasses, doo-rags, and prayer oils?  Check.  This is where you would also come for stamps, notebooks, pens, etc. as well as food products that would blow your mind.  Mackerel?  Done.  BBQ-pulled chicken?  BAM!  So, I bet you are thinking, “you must have mini-fridges” or something like that, right?  Microwaves?  No sir.  Gross?  I certainly think so.  But, that’s just me and I’m in the minority.  The creations that these Top Chefs create with the commissary goods rival that which I’ve consumed at some truly shitty restaurants — burritos, nachos, stews, etc.  But, alas, I am a simple man and I would rather not get fat — so, I choose to eat all my three squares in the Chow Hall and leave the snacking to these other foolios.

So, how do they cook these meals, you ask?  The motto of prison should be:  “You will find a way.”  I have yet to see this with my own two eyes, but apparently they use this illegal, homemade contraband device called a “stinger.”  While everything in the unit that we are allowed to own runs on batteries (radios, alarm clocks, book lights, etc.), there are also outlets in each cube, but they are fairly well hidden.  This contraption plugs into the outlet and, before you know it, the entire unit smells like hot dogs over an open flame.

But back to the shopping experience…It’s not as fun as it may sound (not like an afternoon at Costco).  You need to complete your commissary slip in advance (perhaps I’ll have my administrator scan one and share it wit you via my Tumblr site at some point) and hand it to the gentleman at the door, which he stamps with a number that assigns your spot in line; that part is super important…you need to remember your number because you will eventually drop your slip (with said number) into a slot for the order to be filled and it may be quite a while until they call your random number.  This is the ONLY way which you will be called and if you forget your number or are not there when it is called, you are knee deep in shit creek (paddle or not).

Once inside the store, it is your responsibility to check the “Out of Stock” board.  And after you submit your slip, you grab a seat with the rest of the hooligans and wait for your number to be called.  When your time has come, you step into a little self-contained booth and you press your thumb against a print scanner (which seems like the only high-tech gadget in this whole joint).  There are a lot of strict rules and regulations in place to control the amount of inmate spending each month ($290.00) and there are steps in place to prevent other inmates from trying to steal identities.  For me, personally, this limit is more than enough…especially once I get all of my basic sundries.  But for others — they shop each week like it’s X-mas morning (and where are they getting all of the spending cash?  I’m sure many of these individuals have families to support and they don’t appear to be the wealthiest bunch of ingrates).  Many of these peeps are dismayed and feel collared by the spending limitation…but, as you could imagine, there is always a way around the system for those who want to bend the rules.

After your thumbprint is scanned, the non-inmate prison employee behind the bulletproof glass hands you your loot through one of those sliding metal drawers that you would find at a drive-up bank.  With receipt in hand, it is then your responsibility to verify the accuracy of your order.  You are then on your way.

My notable purchases this week?  1 pair of white Nike running shoes, 1 pair of gray b-ball shorts, 3 gray t-shirts and 3 white t-shirts.  I also got a lock for my locker, some pens and notebooks…and “two, tree” greeting cards that looked like rejects from the dollar store.  I didn’t have quite enough money to purchase a radio, but I will likely buy one next week; in order to watch T.V., institution movies, etc., you need one of these portable radios for the audio as all of the T.V. volumes have been muted for noise control.  On each T.V. set, there is a radio frequency which you must tune to on your radio in order to listen to the program.  Of course, you can also listen to local radio stations which is very useful when working out — however, it will be very interesting to see how my tastes in music change while I’m in here as about the only stations in this neck of the woods include 2-3 country stations, a handful of non-ironic hair metal & stadium rock jams, and maybe one Top 40 Hits channel.  I did, however, find the local NPR channel, which should provide some salvation.

Oh, and this radio?  Probably the biggest rip-off on the compound.  I would say that most of the items in “the store” are fairly reasonably priced (yet still marked up for a substantial profit).  This radio — a tiny transistor in a clear shell with ear buds — runs for $44.  I can’t imagine that the actual cost of this item is more than $5…maybe even less, but it’s something that must make a tone of cash for the system.


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