By Tom Odle
There are about five things that help break prison time down into more manageable situations that allow a person the ability to endure the madness of the penal system. The first thing would be the recreational times, which give you the ability to stay fit, wear yourself out and be able to rest. The second would be phone calls so one can maintain contact with family and loves ones. The third is visits, since it allows you to step into the free world in a way because you are around free people, including your loved ones. Fourth is mail, since it infuses you with important worldly thoughts and emotions to be held in your hand to be read over and over again. The fifth would be what I am going to write about in this article – Commissary.
On the first of every month a memo is distributed to be posted in all the housing units notifying everyone when their housing unit has been slated to “shop,” or go to the Commissary. Of course people are excited about being able to shop because it gives you a sense of freedom to be able to choose what you can eat and purchase other items that you need, such as toothpaste. As the time leading up to Commissary draws close, people begin borrowing with the promise of paying it back “when we go to the store.” We get excited about shopping. Just a lot of things are taking place surrounding Commissary. For many people, they hope that store comes after State pay, which for us is, if you are not working, $10.00 per month. If you are working, $28.80 per month.
So now Commissary Day has arrived. We know when we are scheduled to go and people have begun lining up at the door, like a mad mob gathered around a single door waiting for it to open to be taken to Commissary. There are about 150 people per housing unit – some have more, some have less, but this is a good average, so imagine about 100 people gathered around a door, just waiting for them to call Commissary – they all have on their blues – blue shirt, blue pants – state issued laundry bags in their pockets or around their necks, looking over their shopping list one last time as they keep making changes up until the last minute. People are loud, some unbathed and rude about flatulence, not to mention everyone nearly touching everyone else due to crowding around the magical door that leads to the Commissary.
The wait is over, the Commissary officer has arrived, and word travels throughout the cell house that it is time and those who weren’t waiting run into the crowd which compacts the crowd even more – like packing 100 sardines in a can designed for only 25. So the door opens finally and the sarge begins from the back as people begin shoving everyone in front of them and it reminds you of sand flowing through an hourglass – only it’s people trying to squeeze through a doorway. People yelling at others to stop pushing, officers telling people to stop pushing while counting off between 30 – 50 people. In one instance, the sarge reached 40 and got pissed because of the pushing and only took the first 40 people shoved through the door. Now, those left remain behind complaining about everyone else shoving but how they weren’t, about the remaining people crowded around the door, waiting to do it all over again on the next pick-up of people.
Those that made it out are reborn – feel like they won the lottery and the excitement about having goodies in the cell for tonight sets in. Now we walk to the store, which is a special walk as everyone is trying to get there and get in – an officer has to tell you to slow down at least 4 times along the way. When you get to the Commissary, you stand in line again to give your razors to another officer who checks to see if the blades are there and marks your sheet of how many razors you turned in because you can only get what you turned in back. Once this is all done and finally sorted out, all the slips are turned into the workers behind the fence to write your total down on the slips so when you are called to shop they show you how much your have in your account.
Now you wait to hear your name called to be handed back your slip because you have no money which is pretty embarrassing because, of course, guys are going to laugh and if you owe money, now they know you can’t pay. You are also listening at the front cage to hear your name so you can begin the long process of shopping. Your name has been called and you get up from the bench you have been waiting on for who knows how long. You walk to the first cage where they show you how much money you have on account and ask you what you want from this section. The first section consists of laundry soap, toilet paper, vitamins, shampoo, conditioner and other basic hygiene items. So you get done there and are passed down the line to the next section which consists of what we call the Wet Pack section and chips. There you get your chips, crackers, cheese, BBQ sauce, oatmeal, rice, beans, and wet packs, which are chili in a bag, chicken in a bag, BBQ beef in a bag, ham in a bag shredded beef in a bag, and beef stew in a bag and so forth and so on. But also, this is the most expensive part of the shopping experience. Some wet packs range from $2 - $4.50 and that is for one wet pack. You also have limits as to how much you can buy – only one cereal, six chips, one oatmeal, one peanut butter, four chicken and everything else but you get eight tunas, one cracker and so forth. One has to be extremely careful here or you’ll go broke. You then go to the last section where the packaged meats and candies are along with the Kool Aid, coffee and sodas. Got to be careful here too – things are very expensive in prison due to the 33% mark-up they are allowed to generate income from Commissary, which goes into some fund we never experience the benefits of.
Next, you can get clothing, pillows, sheets and blankets – oh yes, I forgot to mention that because of the prison overcrowding you can purchase your pillow, sheets and blanket if you would like to from the Commissary – they are much better than what the State would supply you with. Once you get to the checkout, you are asked about electronics – Do you want the 13” flat screen TV for $200 plus dollars that sell in the world for what, $50? Once you get rung up, you sign the receipt and ink your thumbprint to prove you received everything and you take your laundry bag full of goodies that you were packing while they were ringing it up and watching your account quickly become depleted. Then you go sit on the bench and wait to leave. But while you wait you watch other people shop – like those who are always asking for stuff like coffee, sugar and noodles – you watch them buy all the cakes and sweets but nothing you know they need and you know they will be walking around, asking for before the day is out. Some people watch you shop so they will know who to ask for things from.
Now it’s time to leave and out the door you go with the people who were beating each other to get there. Now it is a calm, cool and collected line because everybody has what they came for. Once you get to the housing unit you then get to your cell and it is now time to pack your property box, which is 32”x18”x10.” This takes some doing, but if you run out of room perhaps your celly will allow you to put some stuff in his box until you can get it in your box. Now you have shopped and here comes the begging population –do you have? can I get? and usually a person doesn’t mind too much because we are all in the same situation, but it’s the same people same time, same results – so most people play like they aren’t at home, to keep from dealing with these people instead of telling them they were seen shopping and they bought garbage that they ate half of while waiting to come back to the housing unit.
With all that said, and you got a picture of what Commissary day is like, there is also another shopping method, which is what I prefer, and that is you wait until they announce last call for Commissary and by that time it’s only a handful of people left to shop so we just casually walk out, enjoy the walk to Commissary, I’m in and out fairly quick and everybody is so into their own thing when I come back I walk in unnoticed so nobody comes running to my door asking can I get, can I have.
This is Commissary Day in most prisons unless you are fortunate to have Commissary delivered to your door and then it is easy and smooth because they open your door or slide it in through the food slot/bars and that’s it. Hope you enjoyed the journey through Commissary Day.