The Guide to Inmate Canteens: What Types of Things Are Inmates Allowed to Purchase?

The Guide to Inmate Canteens: What Types of Things Are Inmates Allowed to Purchase?

Jails are required by law to provide necessary items, like food, clothing, and running water. However, these are only basic items necessary to live. If an inmate would like anything extra, like stamps, a toothbrush, or additional food, they'll need to purchase these items through the jail's canteen. 

Canteens have a wide selection of different items that can make an inmate's stay a more comfortable, hygienic, and overall better experience. The selection of goods varies by the jail. But, in general, inmates can expect to order the types of things found in a convenience store. So, while hot meals are off the table, an inmate may be able to order a candy bar or other kinds of non-perishable food items. 

For inmates and their loved ones, understanding how canteens work can make surviving jail a little easier. We'll dive deeper into how canteens work–the items available, how to order, add funds, and more. 

What Is a Canteen?

The canteen–or commissary as it's commonly known in prisons–is a place where inmates can order personal items. From food to common hygiene products, the canteen serves as a sort of store. Inmates will be able to choose from a pre-approved list of items set by the jail. Inmates won't use actual dollars to pay for items. Instead, they'll need to load funds into a special account to pay for the items they want. 

The number of times an inmate may visit the canteen varies, but usually, an inmate will visit once a week or once a month. Since outside packages from friends and family are not allowed, visiting the canteen is an essential part of life in jail to ensure that inmates get all of the things they need to make their time in jail more tolerable.

How Does Shopping in a Jail Canteen Work?

Many people wonder how inmate canteens work, as it's a bit different from heading to your local grocery store. For inmate canteens, the kinds of items available are quite limited. The jail will have a list of approved items that inmates may order. Inmates will pick what they want off a jail-approved list and take it to the canteen to pick up their order.

There are also monetary limits imposed on inmates. For example, some jails may not allow inmates to spend more than $75 a week at the canteen. Inmates may also not transfer funds to other inmates. 

What Kinds of Things Can an Inmate Purchase?

There are a wide variety of things one can purchase at inmate canteens. Since jails don't provide much beyond the bare necessities, there are quite a few items that most people would consider necessary (such as hygiene products) available for purchase at the canteen. Some of the most popular items for sale in inmate canteens include:

  • Coffee, pop, and other beverages 
  • Instant soup/noodles
  • Chips
  • Cookies
  • Canned/non-perishable foods
  • Hygiene products: shampoo, lotion, toothpaste, soap, etc.
  • Writing pads
  • Postage stamps

These items are popular due to the lack of personal items provided by the jail. For example, while inmates are guaranteed running water and shower facilities, they are not given additional hygiene products. For inmates to remain comfortable and clean, they'll need to purchase hygiene products from the canteen. Jails don't allow these types of items to be brought into the jail by the inmate nor can family members bring these items into the jail. So, inmates will have to purchase these items in the canteen once inside. 

Additionally, prison food is quite notorious for serving bland food. That's why buying additional food from the canteen is popular among inmates. The exact items vary by facility. However, most canteens and commissaries are more like convenience stores rather than grocery stores. Inmates will typically not be able to buy fresh foods, like fruits, vegetables, or bread.

Can You Deposit Money Into an Inmate's Canteen Account?

Affording the items in a canteen can be challenging. Some inmates may want to spend around $300 to $400 per month at the canteen. This spending can be especially difficult when inmates are unable to attend their jobs, as they may not have a way to make money. 

For many inmates, it becomes necessary to rely on outside family members and friends to load up their canteen accounts with funds. Depending on the jail, there is usually a way for loved ones to add funds or send "care packages" to inmates. What are care packages? If jails offer the opportunity for loved ones to send an inmate a care package, they'll be able to select and pay for a limited amount of items from the canteen. 

For inmates who don't have any money, jails will typically allocate a small amount of money to an inmate's account. In this case, the state will loan an inmate a small amount of money for a very select few items, such as shampoo, toothpaste, soap, paper, and postage stamps. Inmates using state-given money won't be able to purchase any of the extra snack options available in the canteen, like chips or candy bars. Since the amount of money/available items are so limited, inmates will need to find another money source to keep up with their needs, which is why many inmates will have loved ones deposit money into their accounts. 

Inmate canteens are an essential part of life inside a jail. Inmates will be able to get things they need, like toothpaste and a toothbrush, while also grabbing more enjoyable items, like chips or cookies. If your loved one is in jail, there are typically ways of ensuring that your inmate will get what they need from the canteen. However, the exact process and monetary limits may vary by jail. Look up a specific facility to find out how you can get funds for your loved one in jail.