Our staff will not be in the office for their safety - please email all communication requests to aid@inmateaid.com. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.

  1. Home
  2. Services
  3. Prison Coffee, Commissary, and the Alternative Inmate Economy

Prison Coffee, Commissary, and the Alternative Inmate Economy


One of the things I did not consider when I went to prison was that I would no longer get coffee. Of course, this was the least of my worries as I was readying myself to surrender, but having had significant amounts of coffee every morning for my entire adult life--the sudden cut-off of JOE did had a measurable impact. I had a major caffeine withdrawal including migraine-like headaches that lasted a couple of days. I missed coffee.

When I was at the "private prison" at Youngstown, a faux-Joe was occasionally offered in the AM, I was grateful. Since I didn't know how long I was going to be at this temporary assignment I was not able to, and I was leery of establishing "commissary" beyond obtaining "franking" privileges. In other words instant coffee was available through the commissary for purchase. Until I got to Morgantown in mid-December I went without.

So what is commissary?

Commissary is the prison store and a process for obtaining permitted personal items: toiletries, candy bars, stamps, pen and paper, etc. With commissary you can buy toothpaste, cold medicine, Tylenol, non-lye soap, a radio and ear buds, necessary to "watch" day room or common area televisions (all audio signals are broadcast via radio signals.) Like many of the things you buy at Commissary, radios, cups, bowls--acceptable radios are encased in clear plastic, presumably so we criminals don't try to smuggle illegal-stuff in our little electronic devices. Similarly coffee cups are "clear" plastic.

Commissary, rather the withdrawal of commissary is also one of the elements of control used by the authorities to maintain security. Commissary is the carrot and the stick over the inmate population.

The major player is prison commissary is the Keefe Commissary Network or as Keefe calls it, the "corrections community." Keefe is a whole supplier. When I arrived at Morgantown, my first cup of coffee was Keefe freeze-dried Colombian, with powdered "creamer," and "sugar twin" served in a clear plastic thermal cup prepared in the day room microwave. Thank you, Keefe.

No, thank you friends and family. It was the BSL who funded my commissary account and unbelievable friends who occasionally passed the hat back in Our Town including the boys at the 'Bucks who made sure I was hooked up with commissary. [Note: a separate post about these amazing friends who supported me in myriad ways I could not have conceived of--is overdue and not the subject of this post.]

I said prison commissary is a store, well, not in any way I was familiar with--at CCA you received a sheet and you were permitted to order from this sheet approximately one week before delivery. Carts with partially sorted stuff were rolled into the cell block once a month and distributed to the criminals. Being prison, uninformed, I was astounded by what guys buy including the "Honey Bun." This 5000 calorie treat is fav food of the inmate population at CCA Youngstown. Any sane person reading the nutritional information on the back of this baby would not ingest this product. Guess where "honey" is on the list of ingredients?


At FCI Morgantown, the commissary was actually a physical location. Again you were armed with a sheet that you fill out (better be properly completed and highlighted or no commissary), and based on your inmate number you go to the location on your designated day of the week. Standing in a long line with an optical orange mesh "commissary bag," outside, in the dark, in January, in the snow I experienced what Soviet-era Muscovite's must have felt like, sorta. My reward for this effort was acceptable supplies of caffeine, toilet paper (splinter-free enough to use on certain body parts), postage, finger nail clippers, and most importantly, TUNAS.

At Morgantown, the Tuna pouch or strictly in prison parlance, the CAN is the monetary unit for the Alternative Inmate Economy (AIE.) Like all not knowledgeable folks I assumed incorrectly that cigarettes or postage stamps were used to "buy stuff" in jail. Maybe at one time, but smoking is prohibited in federal jails (which is not the same as saying that it doesn't happen.) For reasons that seem obvious to me now, and not very interesting these Tuna pouches that currently cost $1.05 per equal "a buck" by agreement among inmates. The FCI permit inmates to have 30 Tuna "cans" in the locker at any one time. There are also Mackerel, Salmon, Chicken and other types of pouches, but the Tuna pouch is the universally accepted currency. For two cans I was able to pay for a haircut and beard trim, for a can I purchased skilled physical therapy from a former chiropractor, for 15 cans I bought a chair to sit in (as a reader, my necessary and prized possession!), for a 2 cans a talented launderer washed my clothes in the residential washer and dryer helping me to limit my exposure to MRSA. You could buy used tennis shoes, sports equipment, "sweats," and food stolen from the chow hall. Other guys paid gambling debts, bought contraband, and obtained miscellaneous services--which we will get into at some point.

In our housing units there were inmates who operated the AIE; our guy, Jamal aka Walmart, would walk around selling itmes he knew would be valuable or desirable. Jamal was a hustler and he worked his hustle. All new guys were "sized" and Jamal was ready to sell shoes, sweats, watches, radios, and as I said I acquired a chair from him At one point some brothers were razzing Jamal about his hustle and he exclaimed with pride that "I have a net worth of 200 cans." When I heard him brag about his position in the market I laughed out loud and asked, "What’s that in real money?" There were all sorts of guys working a hustle, not including Jamal--most of which involved contraband of one sort or another.

Contraband sounds nefarious, but in fact at Morgantown, at least, contraband was anything you had that you weren't supposed to have or which you had more than you were permitted. For instance I noted that you were allowed to have 30 tuna pouches--if you had 31, the 31sth pouch was contraband. You were permitted to have, in fact you needed a radio, but if you bought your radio from another inmate instead of through the commissary you possessed contraband. Magazines depicting nipples, that's contraband. Of course, the big stuff: cigarettes, cell phones, drugs, alcohol--all of that was contraband, too. Possession of that sort of contraband at a minimum landed the inmate in the SHU/HOLE and potentially prosecuted and shipped away from the prison camp--or in jail speak: "Behind the Fence."

When I went to the SHU/HOLE I was at Morgantown for all of two weeks. My locker was "packed out" and my commissary acquisitions were largely trashed. Any snack I had that was open was tossed, Tide detergent was spilled over everything else. The radio that was lent to me by another inmate was taken as contraband along with the new ear buds that I had just purchased so I could hear the day room television. When I went to the SHU once again I went through the caffeine withdrawal. I was surprised, but even in the SHU you could buy some limited items of commissary although on reflection it makes sense to have some privilege available to the authorities to withdraw.

This morning as I sipped my fresh-brewed cup of coffee and read my newspaper, dated today, I have a lot to be thankful for--especially, my family and friends. I kiss and hug family and friends in real time. Today, I reach in my pocket and pay for coffee with cash not cans. And I think about the folks I met at Morgantown and the CCA--I think about the things I took for granted and take for granted.