My Daily Journal in Federal Prison

Day 129

Nothing quite lifts an inmate’s spirits like a little consumerism:  the Commissary Shopping Day.  When I recently solicited questions from my readers, there were a number of you that had inquired about the prison commissary (or “the Store,” as inmates often call it).  I’ll answer some of those questions today and I will still devote a separate post next week to answer all other questions, including a little more elaboration on some of things that you can buy (legitimately) here in prison.   Also, keep an eye on the blog for a posting of the actual commissary slip, which will appear sometime within the next few weeks.

All inmates have an assigned register number — which is sort of like the SSN of the prison world.  This number is eight digits — the last three identifying the geographic region of where you “caught your case.”  Most often, this number is also your hometown, but that isn’t always true.  The fourth and fifth digits of your number correspond to which day of the week you’re allowed to shop.  That’s right — unfortunately, you can’t just shout at your bunky, “hey honey, gonna run out to the store to pick up a few things…”; you can only shop once a week and only during two specific times of the day — either in the afternoon (between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.) or, if you work during the day, you can shop at night when the Chow Hall is open for dinner.

While “the Store” is an actual, brick and mortar, free-standing retail operation, inmates are not able to do the hands-on shopping themselves.  We’re crooks, remember?  Inmates fill out their slips in advance, show up at the store on their designated shopping day,  get their slips stamped with a 3-digit number by the A-hole working the door (Walmart customer service does not exist here), commit that 3-digit number to memory, check to make sure that none of their desired items are out of stock and, finally, deposit their slip in the tiny mail slot and patiently wait for their number to be called.

The commissary shares a waiting area with the barber shop (another blog topic entirely) so, if you time your visit right, you can walk out with your hairs did along with a laundry sack full of honeybuns.  There’s no “paper or plastic” here…if you’re planning a large order, you better bring your mesh laundry bag for hauling off your merchandise, otherwise you’ll be juggling your goods with your own two hands.

While “shopping” can provide a momentary euphoric rush, it is also a mildly stressful experience — there’s always some danger of having your shopping privileges revoked for that day as a result of either knowingly or unwittingly breaking one of the many odd and draconian rules.  Some of their demands are fairly reasonable — like…they will not fill your order if its not your shopping day…or you need to be around when they call your number… and make sure that you REMEMBER your number.  Their other requests are a little more enigmatic — such as “items marked on your slip with a highlighter will not be accepted”…and “no talking though the tiny mail slot where you deposit your slip” (there’s an inmate on the other side that retrieves your slip)…and there’s a 7 quantity limit on protein bars (the powers that be don’t want you hulking up and overtaking the guards).

Once you’ve deposited your slip in the little slot, you pop a squat on one of the locker-room benches, elbow-to-elbow with the other shoppers, and wait for your number to be called.  This next part would be a hell of a lot funnier if I wasn’t in prison, but one of the best parts of this experience is listening to the Hispanic cop incomprehensibly call out the slip numbers over the squawky loud speaker, which he repeats two additional times (again incomprehensibly) before they throw out your order.  But this is not before a white dude, speaking as clear as day, comes on the loud speaker and publicly berates you for not “hearing” your number when it is called.

The actual “store” is separated from the waiting area by a cinderblocked wall with three numbered booths (with doors) about the size of a large phone booth.  In the inner sanctum, with all the merchandise, inmate store clerks retrieve the slips from the mail slot and begin to fill the orders in little red baskets, like the kind you’d find at your local CVS.

When your number is called, you step into one of the booths,  close the door behind you,  and then press your thumb against a fingerprint scanner as your form of identification. Behind the BULLETPROOF GLASS (a little much?) is a prison cop who rings up your merchandise and sends it through a little shoot, while simultaneously barking at you for not bagging your goods fast enough.  And God forbid you have the audacity to question the veracity of your order.

When my wife’s grandmother passed away, I went shopping for a sympathy card and checked off the appropriate box on my slip.  Thankfully, I checked my purchase before leaving the booth.  What did I receive instead?  A “Thank You” card.  After pulling some teeth to swap out the card, I trusted that they got it right the second time, so I didn’t check it again until I got back to my Unit…and I found a “Get Well” card.  Get well, indeed.


Lunch: Fish FiletSandwich, Macaroni & Cheese, Spinach, Green Apple

Dinner: 2 Chili Dogs, Tater Tots, Baked Beans


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