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A prison commissary cart filled with packaged food is next to the open slot of a cell door
Photo courtesy of Correctional Food Services

At the prison commissary, you can purchase food and you can hang out. 

Food is necessary to survive prison, and social connection is equally important.

At commissary, people with different personalities unite for the sake of a purchase. On days we visit the commissary, nothing matters but ramen, Honey Buns and other snacks. 

Items are expensive, but you still hear laughter from men as they stand in line waiting for their turn to shop — “open line” is what it’s called. On that day, the commissary window is open for everyone to purchase an afternoon spread or just a pint of ice cream to enjoy.

During this window of opportunity, I often witness camaraderie among people who just days before were total strangers. People from different cultures speak to each other, and sometimes they talk in different languages.

In February, I purchased ingredients so my friend Favors could make chili cheese Fritos for the Super Bowl. The recipe consisted of a pouch of chili, cheese, a meat log, rice, jalapenos and a bag of Fritos chips. I also bought a cold can of orange Crush to wash the food down.

I walked over to the table as he prepared the food, and we talked about things we normally wouldn’t, like the war between Ukraine and Russia, the economy and inflation, which has been affecting us here in prison too. 

“Everything is sky-high,” he said of commissary costs. “Just look at the items you purchased … A case of Top Ramen is nearly $11!”

And I paid nearly $15 that day for my groceries, which included the ingredients for what turned out to be an expensive bowl of chili cheese nachos. 

But we had a great time. For that special moment, it felt like we weren’t in prison.

People concoct creative recipes with items purchased from the commissary. Tamales, burritos and seafood spreads are a few examples. When prepared by the right person, these meals would knock any five-star restaurant to smithereens. 

My cousin Marcus has been incarcerated for 30 years and has mastered the art of prison cooking. His meat and rice burritos are out of this world — highly coveted and highly recommended by men inside. They are adorned with specialty sauces and other cooking secrets he won’t share. 

At commissary, you encounter the haves and have nots. Some unfortunate ones have to live on a tight budget or no budget at all. But I’ve also seen charity and the smile that follows when someone has their day made by another’s generosity. When I first came to prison I didn’t realize how a simple day of shopping would change my perspective. 

The line in the commissary can take hours, so you have to be patient. Sometimes we lose the chance to shop at all because an altercation has taken place. The alarm goes off and we wait, sitting on the ground until the situation is contained. That process might take minutes or hours, but the shopping is always canceled.

Open line is everyone’s lifeline, a conduit to freedom. Once a month, you shop until you drop, so to speak, making unlimited purchases, just as long as the window is open. To buy your goods you spend your money, just like outside, whether it’s from loved ones or the monthly wages you earn from your job assignment. I’ve been fortunate to have both.

I spent close to $240 during my commissary visit in February, buying chicken, honey buns, Doritos, jalapeno peppers, spices, oatmeal, hot sauce, tortillas, chocolate, beans, lip balm and more.   

Commissary is a billion-dollar industry, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report that found that incarcerated people in Illinois and Massachusetts spent an average of over $1,000 per person at the commissary during the course of a year. I think it’s a shame that states and vendors reap massive profits off of incarcerated people. They stack cash while many of us earn only cents per hour for our prison labor. 

The wages alone are not enough to take care of yourself. If you don’t have support on the outside, your time inside could be miserable. I feel horrible for those who haven’t felt the joy of commissary — which, to me, is like Christmas. 

Because of this, when I have returned to the unit with my big bag of goodies, I have passed out items and made sure most people have what they need. 

Commissary is a pleasure to look forward to each month. It helps us get through hardship — even though the prices are sky-high.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

De’Wayne Maris is a writer incarcerated in California.