Cell-block busters - Sale items at Rikers prison commissary
By JEREMY OLSHAN
March 1, 2010
Customers at Rikers Island's commissary might get shanked -- but they're never gouged.
The reasonable prices at snack bars at all the city's jails account for the success of the commissary operation, where last year prisoners spent $12.8 million, officials said.
A cup of coffee is 59 cents, a Coke is $1.53, and a pack of peanut M&Ms is 66 cents, according to Department of Correction documents.
Ramen, the 35-cent instant Japanese noodle meals beloved by college students and starving artists alike, is the top seller in the slammer, a Department of Correction spokesperson said.
Guards supply inmates with hot water for the high-carbohydrate, high-sodium instant meals -- which come in shrimp, chili, beef and chicken flavors.
Many prisoners toss out the dried noodles and instead use the flavor packets to spice up the otherwise bland jailhouse fare, officials said.
For the same reason, four-cent packets of mayonnaise are the No. 2 seller.
City jails sold 838,267 units of ramen noodles in fiscal year 2009, with 85 percent of all commissary customers purchasing at least one.
Perhaps the last words one wants to hear in the pokey are "beef stick" or "honey bun," but those two snacks have both been staples of the inmate diet for decades, officials said.
Prisoners or their families can establish commissary accounts at the time they're locked up, and the average inmate spends well over $30 during his or her stay.
Aside from foodstuffs, prisoners also shop for toiletries such as soap, shampoo, toothpaste, moisturizer and a full line of feminine products.
Soap is a big seller at the commissaries. Alas, it doesn't come on a rope.
"Maximum Security" toothpaste and shampoo are sold in clear containers to prevent contraband from being hidden inside.
There are entertainment offerings as well, including cards and dominoes, as well as puzzle books and AM/FM radios.
Companies that supply commissaries around the country say that inmate spending has skyrocketed in recent years, although it's unclear why prisoners have more cash to spend in the cell.
"The inventory doesn't change much -- you'll always see the noodles and honey buns and the Snickers bars," said Pam Whitmill, a vice president at the Bob Barker prison supply company.
"Our biggest area for growth around the country is in electronics, including radios and Nintendo games."