Waiting on the Commissary

Mississippi prisons are so rife with gang violence that a federal court ruled that it's cruel and unusual punishment just to have inmates reside in them.

In an effort to combat those illegal conditions, Marshall Fisher, Mississippi's Commissioner of Corrections, wants to remove commissary from prisons because gangs use the items sold for bartering and to gain control over inmates. As someone who served more than six years in a maximum-security prison in Connecticut, I know firsthand that this is true; commissaries in prison cause more problems than they solve.

A prison commissary - an in-house vendor that sells toiletries, clothing like t-shirts, socks, underwear and sneakers, and a variety of junk food ranging from ramen to non-dairy creamer to iced oatmeal cookies - provides the only legitimate way to procure new belongings in a prison, as borrowing and bartering are banned and stealing is sanctioned. Commissary is often the only aspect of an inmate's life that matters to him or her.

This might evoke sympathy in some people who lament that the high point of anyone's day should be a bag of Doritos. But when your life has so spun out of control that you are in government custody, prioritizing Pringles over figuring out what happened in your life to land you behind bars can be downright dangerous.

Commissary's importance is especially troublesome because so many inmates enter custody as drug addicts, 85% to be exact, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The only thing that matters in an addict's life is her next fix. Commissary just replaces heroin with chocolate, alcohol with fruit punch. The behaviors of compulsion stay the same.

This obsession with food causes even more crime within the prison. In order to convince other inmates to buy them food they can't afford, many prisoners, including one of my cellmates, manipulated doctors until they were prescribed heavy-duty pain medication. They then "cheeked" the pill - hid it in between their gum and cheek - and traded the spit-out tablet for junk food.

When they get caught, these inmates face new criminal charges and watch their punishments grow - along with their waistlines - when they are sentenced to more time. The enticement of junk food on the commissary can all but arrest rehabilitation and ends up keeping people in confinement longer. That's why Commissioner Fisher wants to ban it.

The problems with prison commissary extend beyond just inmate behavior; commissary actually has political implications. In the recent debate over prison labor and how much profit-driven businesses like Whole Foods pay inmate laborers, prisoner advocates forgot one inescapable truth in fighting for higher inmate wages: any increase in inmate earnings will be spent padding the pockets of commissary vendors who prey on captive customers.

The assumption has always been that, if inmates were to earn more money, they would save more for their eventual release or send it home to family. Because there are so few instances of inmates being paid high wages historically, there's little evidence of what inmates do with larger paychecks.

From witnessing inmate spending habits up close, I know that the more money an inmate makes, the more money he will spend to prop up the profits of large prison commissary outfits who care little about his well-being. Anyone who opposes prison-profiteering must take issue with commissaries.

If there had been no commissary at York Correctional Institution and my family had saved every dollar they sent me, I would have departed the facility with over $15,000 in cash and not worried so much about the fact that it takes someone with a criminal record approximately six months to land a low-wage job. Instead, the prison commissary behemoth Keefe Company - a company that pulls in $1 billion a year - profited from my family's pain as I was incarcerated. Since I didn't have the will to abstain, I would have been grateful to the warden if he had removed the opportunity for me to waste money.

Of course, the presence of commissary does have some potential to control bad behavior. Because it is a privilege and not a right, the ability to purchase items from commissary can be taken away for a period of time if an inmate receives a disciplinary report. I have witnessed the threat of that sanction cause inmates to behave a bit better so they wouldn't have to remove Cheetos from their diet.

But if it takes Cheetos to get someone to obey the rules, we're setting up an even riskier situation for inmates when they leave custody. Cheetos, like any other junk food that can be purchased in a prison or any worldly goods available outside of barbed wire, can run out. Or the money to buy them can dry up. In those cases, there's no downside to misbehaving because the reward for following the rules is gone. Commissary displaces the lesson that good behavior will reward itself.

Many former inmates will complain that taking away commissary is a cruel and unusual punishment in itself. I think it's pitiless to foster a system of commerce that does nothing to help its customers and only exploits their unresolved personal problems.

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