The First Time Going To Commissary


“I’d heard a lot about commissary. Guys were telling me that it was like shopping at a local grocery, which I found hard to believe. I mean, this was prison, c’mon really? That sounded ridiculous. Guys were always pulling pranks on each other, and this sure sounded like one.”


I had been at reception for a month now. The daily routine involved attending sessions where you were tested and evaluated in order to determine your security level and which institution you would be sent to. There were psychological and IQ evaluations amongst a battery of medical tests and immunizations. Then it was off to dental for examinations and treatment if needed. This is what every inmate goes through at the reception center, and it’s exhausting.

Thankfully, the next day was commissary. On this day we are allowed to shop at the institution’s ‘store’ for food and sundry items. I was looking forward to being able to buy something to snack on in between meals so that I wasn’t hungry all the time, and this would be my first time shopping since being incarcerated.

I’d heard a lot about commissary. Guys were telling me that it was like shopping at a local grocery, which I found hard to believe. I mean, this was prison, c’mon really? That sounded ridiculous. Guys were always pulling pranks on each other, and this sure sounded like one.

The following morning at 8AM, commissary call was announced. So, I grabbed my I.D. and headed out of the cell block. I made my way across the wide expanse of yard, crossing walkways where pigeons and seagulls milled about beneath a brightening morning sun. The seagulls, I’d later learn, flew in from Lake Erie which wasn’t that far away. They were fearless creatures that insisted you walk around them. One of the guys kicked a bird off the path and was promptly attacked. I couldn’t help but think, “These are definitely prison seagulls.” Birds with attitude.

I continued past buildings with thick unbreakable windows before coming upon the open front door of a nondescript brick building with bars on the windows. A long line snaked out the front door and I found my place and waited.

The chatter in line was upbeat, and guys seemed to be in a pretty good mood. For the most part, this is the norm on commissary days. A lot of guys were in the same position I was in, wanting to shop so that they could make it through the week without being hungry and stressed out.

The line finally slithered through the front door and for a moment I couldn’t see anything as my eyes adjusted to the inside light. When everything came into focus I was stunned at the sight before me. The line wrapped left, then right in amusement park fashion, all the way to a broad window that spanned the entire width of the large lobby. Behind the glass was an expanse of shelves crammed with packaged food items. A dozen inmates busied about as they filled orders taken through the glass.

There were shelves of canned seafood and canned vegetables, packages of cereal and dried milk, Kool-Aids, candies, ready to pop popcorn, dozens of types of potato chips, Little Debbie sweets, and pastries. There was everything you’d imagine to see at the local grocery store save for fresh fruits, vegetables and the obvious stuff like alcohol. There were even a half dozen types of sodas, from Coke and Pepsi products, to generic branded names like “Mountain Rush”, “Dr. P”, and “Cola”. At the far left end, shelves supported multitudes of soaps, deodorants, laundry detergents, toothpastes and tooth brushes. Medications like “Tums” and “Claritin” rounded out the corner all the way to the cashier’s station. A middle aged woman of pleasant disposition efficiently scanned out each order while the patron waited.

I came upon the window, and a guy on the other side motioned for me to speak through the circular metal mesh in the glass.

“What do you need?” He said.

“Do you have any ramen soups?” I asked.

“Yeah. What type? We got beef, shrimp, hot and spicy, chicken, California spicy,” he said. “Just tell me what flavors you want. We have it.”

I had a deer-in-the-headlights moment. I hadn’t really thought about that. I just knew I wanted some noodles.

The guy waited patiently.

“How about 10 beef,” I said.

The guy turned and hollered something to those behind him, and within seconds 10 beef soups were placed in a brown grocery bag.

“What else?”

And so it went. I ordered something to drink and some junk food to snack on and slowly made my way down to the far end of the order window where I picked up some hygiene items.

The lady at the cashier’s station greeted me warmly.

“Hello,” she said. “May I have your I.D.?”

She was referring to my inmate identification card, which I then handed to her. She swiped it across the scanner before handing it back to me.

“Thank you,” she said.

Everything was rung through with speed and efficiency, and before I knew it I was back outside, grocery bag in arm walking around seagulls.

The commissary at the reception center I’d later learn was typical of commissaries at large institutions. Big, comprehensive. The experience, however, was not.

I’ve been to commissaries where the guys working behind the glass were a bunch of jackasses or had no idea what they were doing, and I’ve met cashiers so rude and so mean that I’m pretty sure they hated themselves. Some days shopping were rushed affairs where everyone seemed tense and pissed off, and I’ve found myself standing in front of guys who obviously didn’t bother brushing their teeth that morning. There’s nothing worse than some convict’s hot breath assaulting the back of your head. I’ve also seen everything imaginable while shopping at commissary. Extortions, fights, robberies–you name it. Literally.

However, despite those past exceptions, commissary here is pleasant. The selection is decent and you are treated with respect by everyone, from the convicts working the glass, to the cashier who rings out your order. Just don’t take it for granted tho’.

Commissary can be an adventure.

2 thoughts on “The First Time Going To Commissary

  1. Real good description of what goes on in our local grocery store, you know the one that is the anchor store at the strip mall. Anyway, I used to go to the grocery store just to meet ladies now with Covid-19 dictating behavior, I feel just like the inmate in the above description.

    Arrows telling you which way to walk, plastic barriers in front of you and the cashier (who I might add has an attitude), kids wiping down shopping cart handles looking at you like you are the virus incarnate, everybody in a line that moves slower than Trump’s taxes being released, and of course there is always the @#&hole who has her cart overstocked with disinfectant.

    I guess the question we should ask ourselves ….. who really is in prison?

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