Within federal prisons, commissaries provide inmates with a much-needed taste of the outside world, selling a variety of items that are not provided by the prison, but are incredibly helpful in maintaining some semblance of comfort and convenience.

Knowing how the commissary system works can greatly improve an inmate’s time behind bars, but like almost everything related to the Bureau of Prisons, it is not an easy system to navigate.

Federal Prison Consultants can help clear up any questions you or your loved one may have, related to how the system works, what can be purchased, and more. With that in mind, this is how the commissary typically works at federal prison camps:

1.     Account Setup: Inmates usually have a commissary account, which they can fund through various means, such as money earned from prison jobs or funds sent by family and friends via Western Union or other approved transfer systems. These accounts are used to make purchases.

2.     Commissary Lists: Federal prison camps typically provide inmates with a commissary list that includes the items available for purchase, along with their prices. The list may be updated periodically. We posted an example of the commissary lists from the mens camp at Pensacola FL and woman’s camp at Bryan TX below.

3.     Ordering Process: Inmates can fill out a commissary order form, indicating the items they wish to purchase. They usually submit their orders at designated times, and the commissary staff process these orders.

4.     Payment: The cost of the selected items is deducted from the inmate’s commissary account. If the inmate does not have sufficient funds in their account, they may not be able to purchase the desired items.

5.     Delivery: After processing the orders, the commissary staff prepare the items for delivery to the inmates. Inmates typically receive their commissary orders on a designated day each week. If you are a “first time shopper, meaning this is your first time making a purchase after your surrender, you are usually permitted to make your purchase on the first available day.

6.     Limits: There may be purchase limits on certain items to prevent hoarding or misuse. Limits can vary depending on the prison’s policies and the specific item. The typical monthly limit at camps is $360.00/month.

It’s important to note that not all federal prison camps may operate the same way, and specific rules can vary, or some items which are available in one prison may not be available in another. Also, prices within the commissary may be higher than in a typical store, given higher costs associated with operating within the prison system.

Inmates are typically responsible for managing their commissary accounts, and it’s crucial for them to keep track of their account balance to avoid running out of funds. Also, inmates with restitution or FRP are required to make sure they maintain an adequate balance in their accounts to cover their financial obligations.

The commissary is often the least thought about part of prison life, but it is one of the most important, since any extra comfort is much appreciated while incarcerated. If you or your loved one is in a federal prison, or will be soon, and have any questions on how to navigate this system to make sure you’re fully prepared, please do not hesitate to reach out to us, and we will happily answer any questions you may have!

Sam Mangel
Member: American Bar Association