How Prison or Jail Commissary (Canteen) Works?

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Once an inmate enters the prison or jail, he will be asked to surrender all his things including his money. His money will be kept as his personal trust fund inside the prison. The money he has in the account can be used to buy items from prison commissary.

Unless you find yourself in a maximum security prison, you can actually buy all of your basic necessities, sometimes even a couple of luxuries, using your own money. Prison commissaries make it possible for inmates to have a sense of normalcy while within the prison walls, and makes it easier for them to reform themselves during the rest of their prison term.

Do you want to know how prison or jail commissary (canteen) works?

Things you can Get at the Commissary

The first thing you need to know is that the prison only provides basic necessities such as daily meals, clothing and personal care. All other things such as snacks, pen and paper, coffee, cookies, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and instant noodles can be bought in the canteen or prison commissary.

With the exception of high and medium-security prisons, there are also basic appliances and over-the-counter medications that can be purchased from the prison commissary but this needs the approval of designated prison officers. Shoes, fans and hot pots are some of the basic electronic items available at the canteen.

Another thing about how prison or jail commissary (canteen) works is that your purchase is determined by how much money you have in your inmate trust account. You can have your family send you money to your account or you can apply to do work inside the prison.


All inmates are classified according to their levels. Those in the higher level are deemed by the Division of Prisons to be at higher risk while those with minimum levels have the least risk. This means that those at the higher level have fewer options in the commissary items.
There are two ways to buy commissary items:

1. In-Person Sale. The inmate will personally buy the items from the store. The first thing he will do is fill out the order form and present it to the commissary clerk. The clerk will take note of the information and will also deduct the total amount purchased from his money in the trust fund account.

His order will then be placed in a container. Once all goods are placed in a bag, the process is done and he can leave the canteen.

2. Bag Sale. Commissary orders normally come once in every two weeks. Different prisons may have different date and time for pickup and delivery of commissary orders.
There is a commissary catalog where available commissary items are listed. An inmate needs to submit an order form to the security officer. The officer will then forward the orders to the commissary employee.

Once the orders have been deducted from the inmate’s account, they will be bagged and marked with the inmate’s ID number, name and cell location.
The security officer or designated commissary employee will distribute the bagged orders.


The last thing to know on how prison or jail commissary (canteen) works is the payment system. The US Federal System only allows each inmate a total of $75 worth of commissary every two weeks. The money used in purchasing commissary items is debited from the inmate’s personal trust account. If the inmate does not have enough money, his purchase will be limited only to basic personal care items such as soap and shampoo and will be marked as debt in his account.

In addition, your friends and family can add money to your account. Depending on the correctional facility, your family can add $50 at the most to your commissary account every quarter. It might not seem that much, but in prison where everything is highly-regulated, even a couple of bucks added into your commissary account can make you very happy.

Some problems

Although it might seem that receiving $75 every two weeks is enough for inmates, since they do not have to pay for board and lodging anyway, you’d be surprised at just how small that amount really is. Every cent counts when you are in prison, and if you run out of, say toothpaste or soap, you can be sure that borrowing supplies from your fellow inmates will not be that easy.

Earning money in prison jobs is possible, but usually you will only get around 12 to 28 cents per hour of labor, which is usually not enough to get all the necessities per month. If you don’t have anyone from the outside who will add money into your prison commissary account then you need to be a lot more frugal with your spending.

The “Must-haves”

Besides the basic stuff that you need to get from the prison commissary, you might also want to get a couple of non-essential items, if only to make your prison stay tolerable. For instance, you can buy books to keep your mind sharp, and maybe even learn a new skill while you are in prison. Books are great because they will let you while out all of the idle time.

You can also get birthday cards, envelopes, and other correspondence supplies from the prison commissary. If there’s one thing that you will learn in prison, it is that it is actually nice to receive handwritten letters and cards from your loved ones. If you want to have a steady stream of correspondence with your loved ones then you need to send some their way too. Send birthday cards or even just a couple of simple letters every week or so; this will make you feel connected to the outside world.

The prison commissary is heaven-sent for prisoners who want to have a sense of normalcy in the dismal environment of correctional facilities. Although you have a limited number of choices, and the money you can use is usually not enough, you at least get a say about the items that you receive.

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