Surviving Austerity: Commissary Stores, Inequality and Punishment In The Contemporary American Prison


Participants, on average, spent $1,249 on commissary items each year.

As mass incarceration exploded in the 1980s, so did fiscal austerity, leading to the use of monetary sanctions and user fees to shift the financial burden from taxpayers to those who make contact with the criminal justice system. In the prison system, fiscal austerity has led to the decrease of public resources for essential items like food and hygiene products and increased importance of prison commissary stores where individuals purchase extra food, personal care products, clothes, and small appliances to mitigate harsh living conditions. In 2018, people in New York prisons spent $38 million, or $757 per person, on commissary items. This study investigates the financial costs formerly incarcerated people took on during their incarceration through qualitative and structured interviews conducted between October 2019 and March 2021. The authors focused on three groups of people: those who could rely on a steady income from daily employment, those who had irregular access to some income, and those without access to financial resources. The researchers found that the commissary system and austerity policies fueled inequalities and exacerbated punishment in the New York prison system. Individuals with a lot of disposable income were less affected by monetary sanctions from misbehavior tickets or having their access to the commissary revoked because they could afford the inmate market, whereas people without any access to financial resources faced major difficulties if they received a $5 misbehavior ticket. 

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Key Findings:

  • Participants spent, on average, $3,718 yearly during their time inside New York State Prisons. 
  • The prison system garnishes 20 to 40 percent of a person’s employment income and 25 to 50 percent of outside contributions for fines, fees, and surcharges.
  • Participants made an average of $0.25 per hour or $31 a month for prison labor.
  • People incarcerated face fines for misbehavior; the fine for a level 3 offense is $5.
Tommaso Bardelli, Zach Gillespie, & Thuy Linh Tu
Punishment & Society