Prison commissary

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Commissary list, circa 2013.

A prison commissary[1] or canteen[2] is a store within a correctional facility, from which inmates may purchase products such as hygiene items, snacks, writing instruments, etc. Typically inmates are not allowed to possess cash;[3] instead, they make purchases through an account with funds from money contributed by friends, family members, etc., or earned as wages. Typically, prisons set a maximum limit of funds that can be spent by each inmate on commissary.

Items used as currency[edit]

Certain items tend to be used as currency by inmates. Cigarettes were a classic medium of exchange, but in the wake of prison tobacco bans, a number of other prison commissary items have taken precedence. These include postage stamps, honey buns and instant ramen noodles, which is also increasingly popular as a medium of exchange due to its versatility in prisons as food and its relative abundance.[4][5] In some prisons, packets of mackerel fish or "macks" has also taken prominence as a currency, as it is priced closely with one US Dollar, and maintains stability.[6][7] In 2021, one "mack" was equal to about one dollar, by late 2023 the price had inflated to $1.30.[8]

Popular items[edit]

Instant ramen noodles—often called "soups" in prison—are a popular item due to the often bland nature of prison food, the durability of common ramen noodle packages, and the uniformity or fungibility based on how one "soup" can easily be exchanged for another or multiple can be exchanged for other goods or services between prisoners in an illicit prison economy.[9]

As prison budgets are cut in the US, ramen has become a popular commodity to supplement food needs.[5] Packets of mackerel are another such item.[10][11] These ingredients are often used by inmates to prepare meals, colloquially called "spreads".[12]

In both the United States and United Kingdom, electronic cigarettes are available in a small amount of jails.[13][14]


In 1930, the U.S. Department of Justice authorized and established a commissary at each federal institution.[15]


Some prison commissaries are staffed by government employees and inmates, while others have been completely privatized. Significant price markups are common in prison commissaries, although some prison systems set maximum markups; for instance, the Delaware Department of Correction has a 20% maximum markup.[citation needed] $100 million in purchases were made from Texas' prison system alone in 2009.[16] Prison commissary is a privilege that is often taken away for infractions.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "FAQ: What is the Prison Commissary". Prison Fellowship. 26 May 2017. Retrieved 2020-12-18.
  2. ^ "Canteen and money". 29 January 2014.
  3. ^ "". 2004-07-24. Archived from the original on 2012-02-24. Retrieved 2013-09-16.
  4. ^ Gibson-Light, Michael (2018-06-01). "Ramen Politics: Informal Money and Logics of Resistance in the Contemporary American Prison". Qualitative Sociology. 41 (2): 199–220. doi:10.1007/s11133-018-9376-0. ISSN 1573-7837. S2CID 150090116. Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  5. ^ a b "Ramen noodles supplanting cigarettes as currency among prisoners". August 22, 2016.
  6. ^ Scheck, Justin (3 October 2008). "Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 1 February 2021.
  7. ^ "Prisoners Explain Why A Pack Of Mackerel Is The Gold Standard Of Currencies In America's Prisons". Arabian Post. 1 December 2023. Retrieved 1 December 2023.
  8. ^ Fanelli, James (November 23, 2023). "Sam Bankman-Fried's Life Behind Bars: Crypto Tips and Paying With Fish". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2023-11-23. A pouch of mackerel fillets costs $1.30, up 30% from $1 in 2020.
  9. ^ a b Giudice, Teresa & Baker, K.C. (2015). Turning the Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again. Gallery Books. ISBN 9781501135101.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ "Incarcerations". Retrieved 30 April 2019.
  11. ^ "Mackerel Economics in Prison Leads to Appreciation for Oily Fillets". 2008-10-02. Retrieved 2013-09-16.
  12. ^ "The Art of Gourmet Cooking in Prison". 8 December 2015. Retrieved 2021-07-31.
  13. ^ "This Kentucky jailer couldn't find an e-cig that was safe enough for his jail. So he invented one". 27 November 2018.
  14. ^[bare URL PDF]
  15. ^ "BOP: Inmate Money". Retrieved 2013-09-16.
  16. ^ Stiles, Matt (November 23, 2010). "Texas Prison Commissary Sales". Texas Tribune. Retrieved 2013-09-16.

Further reading[edit]