Monday is commissary day. The commissary provides a critical function in prison life. While it is true that they provide us with every thing we must have, they don't give us everything we need. For example, at no charge they do provide three meals a day, meals that are reasonably nutritious and not horrible, underwear, socks, t-shirts, pants and shirts, and even boots that seem designed to hurt your feet. They give us bedding and bath towels. And once a week they give use two rolls of toilet paper, a bar of plain soap, a single blade disposable razor, and a small tube of horrible tooth paste. In theory a guy could live just fine on what they provide for free. But in application it doesn't work that way.
The gap between basic need and small comfort is filled by the commissary. The stuff in the commissary is limited and tightly regulated by security protocol. We can "shop" at the commissary once a week and in that time we can spend up to $360.00, which is the monthly "spending limit." I never spend nearly that much, but some guys do. I wont itemize all the things at the store, but to give you a general idea they have canned soda by the case, potato chips in large bags, microwave popcorn, instant coffee, tea bags, and Gatorade. They have numerous hot sauces and seasoning, cheese, oatmeal, honey, peanut butter and nuts. Cookies and candy bars of different varieties. Tuna, Sardines, Mackerel, pepperoni, sausage, and pizza kits. Various instant soups, pop tarts, and bagels. There are Bic pens, pads of paper, photo albums and typewriter ribbons, an assortment of vitamins and fitness bars.
They also sell portable radios, book lights and batteries to run them. They sell an MP3 player (only one brand), Skullcandy ear buds and Skullcandy headphones. They sell all kinds of over-the counter medicines, soap, shampoo, hair gel, and even "Ponytailers" which I use because I haven't cut my hair in three years. They sell expensive Gillette Sensor 3 razor blades, which is why I have a beard. Timberland socks, boxer shorts, t-shirts, sweat pants and sweat shirts. And the things that everyone must have, a Timex Ironman watch and sneakers. And of course there's postage stamps and a copy card to use the copy machine. And last but not least, ice cream by the pint.
In the cell block we have an ice machine and microwaves, which are both used in conjunction with what we buy from the commissary. If you can afford it you can eat pretty good out of the commissary. You can also get fat off all the junk food, but that's true anywhere.
Everyone has to have a job and all jobs come with a pay check. My job pays $28 a month, some are as high as $95 here. Other federal prisons have industry jobs where a guy can earn as much as $300 a month. But most guys have to make due with low paying jobs and are dependent on money they receive from family and friends on the street. There are a few guys in prison who have a lot of money put back that they draw on, but they are rare. Most guys are broke, like me, so are dependent on a combination of prison wage and outside support.
All in all it is a system that works reasonably well.