I wake up early in the morning, and it’s nice to wake up with a sense of anticipation. I used to wake up eager for the day all the time when I was free. Now, I’m not free. But, one of the things an inmate can really look forward to is commissary day. It ain’t no Walmart, that’s for sure, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s paradise. All the zoom- zooms and wham-whams we can afford and can fit into a 2-foot cubic space. But, as so many other things in life, the reality of commissary day-hardly ever lives up to the anticipation it stirs.
First, there’s the Inmate Trust Fund. The ITF is a non-interest bearing account used by the TDCJ to hold all funds belonging to the offenders in its custody. Each inmatets money is kept separate, but in whatever institution it’s sitting in, it is definitely making the TDCJ some money. I remember reading an Article in the Dallas Morning News where they had gotten a Freedom of Information Act review of the account, and if memory serves, there was $17 MILLION in the account at the time. I’m sure it’s grown significantly by now. That’s a lot of interest, too, which might account for certain interesting quirks in the system seemed especially designed to slight the inmate. Inmate, no interest. TDCJ, 2%.
For example, both of my parents had automatic checking withdrawla-from their accounts to put into my ITF. Their money was removed every 5th of each month, like clockwork. Now, since it’s AUTOMATED, one would think the money would be ready for inmate use the next day, or, at worst, the day after. Nope. Not in the good ol’ TDCJ. Your money will be ready for your use on the llth following. That’s right. It takes almost a week for the money to automatically be withdrawn from your loved one’s account and posted to your books. You might think, “Well, that’s no biggie,” but wait, there’s more.
The reason there is a “commissary day” is because you cannot just go to the store any time you want to. No, sir ihdeedy, Bob. Each building is called to go after the building preceeding it has totally finished their turn. IF you have agood commissary manager, they will know roughly when you’ll be going, and they can make a fairly accurate calendar. Unfortunately, we DO NOT have such a commissary manager. We DID have one. Her name was Ms. Gomez, and she was great. Her calendar was inaccurate, but not because she was slow. Instead, she was Always AHEAD of the schedule, and that, myfriends, is a rare and wonderful thing. We really never appreciated her the way she deserved. As a matter of fact, my friend, Jay Goodman told you that sometimes, the guys in here write frivolous grievances. There were some real dunder-heads in here that actually GRIEVED her for getting tool far ahead of schedule. That’d be like reporting a police utticer because they let you out of too many tickets. STUPID! Anyway, we don’t have to worry about THAT anymore. Let’s just say the current manager is in NO danger of anyone ever writing her up for getting ahead of anything. She’ll be late tor her own funeral.
So, when Ms.. G was running things, we were making store every week to 7 business days. Now, we are fortunate if we go in less than three weeks. Can you imagine trying to make everything that you will snack on in the next three weeks, not to mention the several meals you have on standby in case the chow hall is serving dog food (Okay. They don’t serve dog food. I’d NEVER serve my dog that food. HA!) in a locker no bigger than the one you used in middle school? Oh, yeah. Your books and papers and whatever else you own have to go in there, too. Sheesh.
Now, I want you to picture the commissary line. There’s actually more than one. The first line is where you are waiting to get out of your dorm and get into the real line. Usually, the dorm line consists of sitting on the bench in the order in whigh you came to wait. This is a Teal crap-shoot here. First, there’s no guarantee that the line will move one person while you’re in it. Commissary is a delicate and ephemeral thing that must be handled with great care. The Huntsville computers might break down. A worker might call in sick. There might not be enough security to have people out in the line. A moth might fly away from a tree in Brazil to the left instead of to the right, and they will shut down the commissary line. If by divine grace they are open, you have to deal with line-jumpers and outright bullies that might have no respect for the line, and run roughshod right over you. I’ve seen more fights over this issue than Just about any other. Like I said, store is precious.
Now, let’s say the stars align, and you somehow make it out the door and into the real commissary line. It’s a double row of full-grown men on a three-foot wide sidewalk. You might have seen in the movies or on TV that there are some really large men in prison. That’s at least one thing that Hollywood has right about prison. So, you’re on this sidewalk next to Barney the Dinosaur, trying not to get muscled out, and occasionally, your foot will slip off into the grass, and you will invariably hear one of the officers scream at the top of his or her lungs, “GET OFF MY GRASS!” No, the grass of the TDCJ, lovely as it is, plush with weeds and stickers, is NOT for the foot of the lowly inmate, it seemingly belongs to some co-op in which every, officer o f the TDCJ has heavily invested. I say heavily, because they seem to own, “MY table.”, “MY door”, and a host of other fixtures that only deceivingly appear to belong to the State. Your time on the sidewalk, waiting to get up to the window is anyone’s guess. Once, I was the sixth person in line. It was 9:00AM. By the time I got up to the window to get my things, It was already after 1:00PM.
This meant automatically, that I wouldn’t be back to my dorm before 2:00PM, because it was count time, and count never cleared in less than an hour. I f you’ve done the math, you’ve already figured out that it took 50 minutes per person to get me out of the line. And remember, this isn’t Walmart. It’s more like a drive-up convenience store with no, cars. And there’s a “spend limit”, too, so you can’t just get up there and go ape. Fifty minutes a piece to buy stuff that has to fit in two cubic feet. Now you’ll understand what I’m saying when I tell you that TDCJ commissary is like what it must have been for the Russians under the Soviets when they needed to go get something from the store- a paucity of goods, all over-priced; absolutely NO customer service, because they’re doing you a favor just by existing; and an utter lack of concern for efficiency or bottom line. I don’t think that privatizing prisons is a good idea, but I certainly think that privatiiing this department of the prison system would be a greaf idea.
Now, let’s look at selection. The items offered reflect what might be found in many convenience stores, except that all the goods are knock-off brands. (In fact, most of the items are from a company called Barbcoi out of Huntsville, Texas. Cute name, huh? I wonder how many big-wigs in the TDCJ are invested in THAT proposition? They sure seem to get an unusually high percentage of the available contracts. The contract system insures against many of the most favorable char’acteristics of the capitalist system, like variety and competitive pricing, not to mention higher quality for the cost. Instead, a bidding vendor is somehow selected by the powers that be (Hey! I know! Let’s use Barbco!), and that vendor has exclusive rights to sell that product for one year. Interesting things happen around September (the first month of the fiscal year) and January (the first month of the calendar year).
An item mignt diasappear for several weeks or even months, only to reappear under a new company name or the same exact product. Some things never come back at all. (Oh, how we miss you Pringles!) Sometimes, due to circumstances beyond their control, the TDCI has to discontinue an item. When lysteria hit the Blue Bell plant, I can promise you that at least 180,000 Texans behind barbed wire were nearly in tears. See, the TDCJ can’t just bring in a competitor, because they are locked in this contract. There was rejoicing in the streets the day they finally came back, 18 months later. Yeah, we get Blue Bell.. It’s not like we have freezers in our 2-cubic-foot lockers, but they sell it by the pint. It’s the best thing going down here. We also get chips in several verities and sizes. (Alas, no Pringles.) There’s Barbco Jalepeno, Barbco Bar-B-Que, Barbco… well, you get the idea.
There’s squeeze cheese. Saltines and round crackers (Ritz knock-offs). But, here are the staples: doffee, Columbian and Plantation (or expensive and cheap); Ramen noodle soups, or just “soups” in three different flavors, beef, chicken and chili; and “hygiene”, the all-inclusive category for soap, deodorant, toothpaste, etc. That’s right. The TDCJ will provide soap. You get five green bars about the size of a hotel bar. If you stack them all together, you’ve got maybe a fourth of a bar of Zest.
You must wash your body, your personal clothes (shorts, t-shirt, etc.) and anything else that needs cleaning with THESE five bars if you are unfortunate enough to be indigent. (By the way, there’s a lovely lady in the commissary at Garza East Prison Unit who, if you come to the window and hand over your card, but have no money on your books, will say, “Nobody loves you!” and fling the card out the window for you to go pick up.) After a recent court ruling (yes, a COURT ruling), indigent prisoners finally started getting toothpaste. Indigent prisoners STILL do not get deodorant. Remember there’s no AC in prison. So, those of us fortunate enough- oh, how fortunate enough to make store, always look out for these guys and get, them the basics. This, by the ‘way, is against the rules. It’s called “trafficking and trading” in the rule book, but, to their credit, mast bosses look the other way when it’s stuff like hygiene.
The store also sells correspondence supplies: stamps, paper, envelopes, etc. You used to be able to get everything but stamps sent in by the “third-party purchase”. Your family would get it online or at a office-supply store, and the store would ship it straight in. Can’t do that anymore. A pad of typing paper, 50 count, is 95¢. As outrageous as that is, it’s a steal compared to writing paper, 50 sheets, TWO FREAKIN DOLLARS. You see, being a government run monopoly, you can do things like that. When paper could still
be sent in, Mom would order me a ream of 500 sheets of note paper. It cost $4.00 total even with shipping.
When the Texas legislature passed a law that required the-TDCJ to allow third-party veildors to send care packages into the prison, the policy was IMPLEMENTED as nothing more than regular commissary, but it conld now be orderd online with a big, fat surcharge whacked onto•it. It these people can squeeze a dime out of your friends and family, believe me, nothing is below their dignity. The sad part about it is, just like the tax money that’s being poured down the drain in this place, these moneys are tossed away hand over fist i n a business model that wouldn’t survive 90 days out in the market place.
Let me close with this true story. After my dad died, I received an insurarce check. It was several thousand dollars. In accordance with TDCJ policy, my account was “frozen” while the deposit was investigated. This is supposed to take no more than 7 business days. Thirty days after my deposit, I was STILL fighting to access my funds so I could buy staples, much less goodies. AND, since my account showed there was money there (just not accessible to me), I couldn’t claim indigent and receive correspondence supplies that way. Even though I’d done nothing wrong and deposited the money in accordance with policy, it took SIX WEEKS for me to make my next commissary. Not only was it presumed that I was obtaining this money illegally, but when it wasclearly shown that it was a check from Allstate Insurance company to pay the policy on my dad’s life, it took an additional three weeks to access the funds. This is ridiculous.
Government is good at some things. Government is bad at others. Commerce, in the U.S.A., is the purview of the free public, and the commissary is definitely one area of the Texas prison system that could benefit greatly from privatization. Not only that, but the legislation of 2013 requiring the TDCJ to open its doors to care packages sent from approved third-party vendors needs to be honored by allowing inmates’ families to send edibles and stationary supplies from legitimate vendors like Walmart, Amazon or Office Depot. Barbco shouldn’t have a government-run monopoly of the Texas prison commissary.