How Prisons Work

Prisoner Commerce and Outside Contact

Prisoners can purchase a variety of items at the prison commissary. The commissary is basically a warehouse of goods that are approved for inmate ownership. Prisoners get a list of all the items and their prices, and on the day they are allowed to go to the commissary, they fill it out for the items they want. After waiting in a long line, they reach a window where a guard (or possibly a working inmate) deducts the money from the prisoner's account and retrieves the items. Prisoners are not allowed to carry cash -- money they earn in their prison job or sent to them from the outside is kept in an account. In modern prisons, each prisoner ID card is electronically linked to the account, much like a debit card. Some prisons also issue commissary stamps, which can be used like cash within the prison.

In addition to the commissary, every prison has a thriving black market. In the absence of cash, prisoners use a complex barter system. Prisoners who want something that can't be purchased at the commissary, such as better books, illegal drugs, nicer clothes or a weapon might trade cigarettes, commissary stamps or personal protection from other inmates to get what they want. These outside items might be smuggled in by visiting relatives or guards who make their own profit from the black market. In some cases, inmates have produced bootleg alcohol or illegal drugs inside the prison itself.


Prisons generally have visiting hours that roughly coincide with regular business hours. Each prisoner gets a limited number visits per month, depending on his behavior in prison and the nature of his sentence and crime. When someone is first incarcerated, their paperwork includes a list of family members who are allowed to visit them, as well as a limited number of friends. Anyone who wishes to visit who is not on this list may face a lengthy delay before they are approved. Visits from investigators, employers or the inmate's attorney are not limited, but they must still be approved by the warden.

At lower-level security facilities, the visitation room looks much like a waiting room. It is usually very crowded, and there is little privacy. Excessive physical contact between prisoners and visitors is discouraged. Conjugal visitation rights are extremely rare in today's prisons.

In a maximum security prison, inmates speak to visitors through a glass partition using telephones. Visitation time is limited and monitored by armed guards, and prisoners and visitors are subject to searches before and after the visit.

Other than visits, prisoners can have contact with the outside world via letters and packages. However, all mail going in or out of the jail is opened and examined by prison officials, and all phone calls are recorded.

In the next section, we'll look at some of the violence that occurs within the prison walls and the punishments that occur when a convict breaks the prison rules.