With a couple of clicks of a touchscreen kiosk, inmates at Mobile County Metro Jail can order up everything from snacks to playing cards and have them hand-delivered within a few days through a commissary program that generates hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
According to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), the commissary program at Metro is a popular way for inmates who have the financial resources to purchase items to eat, drink, use and wear.
“It’s been in existence for many, many years. Most jails or prisons have a commissary where inmates can buy additional things they might want or need,” Sheriff Sam Cochran said. “The biggest-selling item we have is ramen noodles. They use hot water to make them if they want a snack that’s more filling.”
At Metro, the commissary program has been streamlined in recent years through a system managed by Kimbles Commissary Services. Cochran said the contract to manage the commissary system is competitively bid every two to three years, though there are few companies that do that kind of work.
The Kimbles system runs through kiosks in the jail’s wedges — common areas inmates share with one another when they’re not in their cells. The devices can be used to order commissary items, send and receive emails, and communicate with corrections officers and other staff members at the jail.
Some of the features are free, but others cost money inmates spend through JailATM accounts. They can deposit cash into the system themselves or have friends and family members put money on their books from the outside.
Cash deposits require a $3 convenience fee and the fee for using credit or debit cards scales up based on the amount of money being deposited.
Inmates use the commissary to acquire snacks, additional toiletries, medical supplies, clothes, games, writing materials, books and any number of items that are distributed by Kimbles during regular deliveries to the facility.
In normal times, it would take a couple of days to receive an order; the shipments come in once a week currently due to the threat of COVID-19.
The prices range anywhere from 60 cents for hydrocortisone cream to $30.09 for Velcro athletic shoes. Those ramen noodles? They cost 96 cents per pack and are available in seven different flavors.
According to William Pendergraph, vice president of Kimbles’ correctional division, the prices for those items are set based on what they would sell for at convenience stores within a certain radius of the jail. Kimbles also offers hundreds of other items based on that same pricing model.
“We compare prices to get fair market value. It’s the price you would see in a local 7-Eleven store. Our prices shouldn’t be compared to what you would pay in Walmart or a Costco,” Pendergraph said. “We sell the goods, bag the goods, ship the goods and then come in and distribute the goods to each inmate.”
A full list of the items that can be purchased through Metro’s commissary and their prices are available at lagniappemobile.com. What isn’t available is a copy of the contract between MCSO and Kimbles, which a spokesperson said could not be released to the public because it contains information that is specific to the competitive bidding process.
Cochran said, to the best of his memory, MCSO receives somewhere around 30 percent of sales Kimbles makes through the commissary. Either way, those sales add up quickly. According to MCSO, commissary sales at Metro generated $478,000 in 2018 and more than $529,000 last year.
By law, proceeds from the commissary have to go back into jail or law enforcement operations, but they are deposited into a “law enforcement fund” — one of many discretionary funds Cochran oversees that are not subject to the oversight of the Mobile County Commission.
“We use those funds to pay for all kinds of various expenses,” Cochran told Lagniappe. “Just the other day, I approved funding from that account to be used to buy uniforms for corrections officers. We were out of budgeted uniforms for the jail and we’ve got some new hires so we bought them out of that fund.”
While the commissary no doubt makes money for the jail, Warden Trey Oliver said it has other benefits as well. While the jail provides inmates three meals a day, toiletries and other personal hygiene items, the commissary can offer things they might not get otherwise. Oliver said the jail provides everything an inmate needs whether or not they can afford to purchase items from the commissary.
“We feed them three square meals a day, and it’s well over 2,000 calories, but I get it. People like to snack … especially the younger inmates,” Oliver said. “We also provide all the necessities when it comes to personal hygiene and toiletry items, but it’s usually the cheapest available because it’s always bid out.”
For jail staff, access to the commissary can also be used as a “behavioral tool” for inmates.
Oliver said inmates who commit disciplinary infractions can have their commissary benefits suspended, though he said corrections officers try to avoid that because the commissary tends to improve inmate morale. He said dissatisfaction with food options can quickly lead to unrest.
Oliver also acknowledged the commissary can cause some problems of its own, though.
As with any society, an economic system is built on what people value, and most Metro inmates value items that can be purchased from the commissary. Oliver said there are occasionally fights caused by inmates stealing other inmates’ commissary items, which can be tough to prevent given that inmates in the general population don’t really have access to secure storage space.
“In full transparency, typically our most violent days are commissary days, and that’s because people locked up in any kind of correctional facility are going to barter with what they have,” he said. “It’s not much different than the outside world, as far as street life is concerned. They trade, gamble and in a lot of cases, commissary day is pay-up day. That’s really the only downside to a program that, otherwise, is good for inmates and for the jail.”
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