Sentinel Staff Writer
January 10, 2009
Jail inmates can't go to the mall, but they still go shopping.
In fact, last year they spent $2.8 million from their cells. That's a lot of coffee, honey buns and Texas beef instant lunch.
Those are some of the top 10 best sellers behind bars, but the Orange County Jail commissary actually offers several hundred food and personal items, including black Converse high tops for $25.95, colored pencils for $3.25, T-shirts for $4.99 and a Sony radio for $21.
Jails are required to provide inmates with their basic needs: nutritional meals, medical care, clothing and other hygiene necessities.
Still, being locked up doesn't mean inmates have to give up their favorite snack food or do without a pocket dictionary. Those with money in their inmate account can pick up a few personal items from the commissary -- a made-to-order service available to most of the 4,000 inmates.
"If they have the means to buy Converse, what's the harm in selling them?" asked Frank Priola, the jail's fiscal manager.
This week, the jail's most famous inmate, Casey Anthony, bought $48.01 worth of items, including Cocoa Butter lotion ($2.93), five chocolate-chip granola bars ($2.93) and a bag of cheese puffs (75 cents). She previously bought a radio, Speed Stick deodorant, Noxzema face wash, and a sketch pad and pencils.
There are limits to what the commissary offers, of course. A jail official recently corrected CNN's Nancy Grace when the host talked about a "shrimp cocktail" Anthony had ordered. The closest thing in stock is a shrimp-flavored instant lunch of ramen noodles, jail spokesman Allen Moore said.
Commissaries in jails don't differ much from those in federal and state prisons. The shopping lists vary, depending on what the warden will allow, said Ed Bales, managing director of Federal Prison Consultants LLC.
In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that some federal prisoners use pouches of mackerel fillets as currency in the big house.
Mackerel is offered at the Orange jail ($1.75). Moore said he's not aware of a bartering system in the local lockup, but inmates may trade commissary items with one another.
Inmates aren't the only ones who benefit from the commissary. Orange County profits from the one-source shopping.
The commissary is operated by Keefe Commissary Network, a Missouri-based company that focuses on this unique market niche.
Keefe, which would not talk to a reporter about the company, is the same organization that operates the commissary in Florida's state prisons, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
In Orange County, the jail pockets 32.5 percent of the cost of each item sold.
In October, inmates ordered $220,000 worth of items. That means the county kept more than $70,000, which helps pay for jail programs.
Just like people on the outside, consumers in jail need money to obtain such perks. Inmates get money in their accounts several ways. Money taken at arrest -- if not seized by the cops -- goes into their jail account. Priola, the jail's fiscal manager, said there are plenty of checks and balances for security purposes.
"We are not equipped to be a bank," he said.
Loved ones can deposit cash at the jail. And government checks, including an IRS tax return, are welcome. One inmate had his IRS check ($1,734) and his government stimulus check ($600) sent to the jail. He released $1,000 to his attorney, Moore said.
Charles Hair, 65, who violated probation from a sexual-battery case, tops the account list with more than $8,000 in his account. He was transferred from the California prison system, where he had the money on account, Moore said.
Kenneth Reeves, 50, who was convicted in October of armed burglary and other charges and sentenced to 35 years, had nearly $7,000 on him when he was arrested in June 2007. That money went with him when he was transferred to the Florida DOC.
But those are extreme cases. Most have a few bucks in their account.
Sarah Lundy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6218.