Nutty wafers, razors and snack mix: Inside a jail commissary

By Marc Kovac - The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS (AP) — Vicki Volpe walked through the smallish room at the Franklin County Corrections Center that serves as the jail commissary, past the small packets of grape jelly and pickled jalapenos, toward the cough drops, shampoo and playing cards, in two colors.

Shelves and tables were stuffed with legal pads, bagels, cookies, protein bars, beef jerky and denture containers.

A big box held snack mix at $2.75 a bag.

“Everybody orders three bags,” said Volpe, the commissary manager at the facility on Jackson Pike south of Downtown.

Nutty wafers are 75 cents a pair, with six packages (a dozen bars) per box. And then there are the razors: single-bladed, plastic, disposable and 50 cents each.

Those three items are among the most popular purchases at the jail, with inmates buying upward of 7,200 bags of snack mix, 23,000 packages of nutty wafers and 19,000 razors.

Every month.

“As you can see, we could use a little more room,” Volpe said.

Men and women sentenced to longer jail terms enter one of the two county corrections centers with nothing but the clothes on their back. They can keep their underwear and socks, but everything else is stored until their departure.

Family members and friends are not allowed to provide snacks or other pleasantries. The jail supplies items through vendors and from official sources as part of efforts to block drugs and other contraband from the premises.

Inmates are given a few items when they check in: a blanket and bedsheet, sturdy sandals, a finger-tip toothbrush and toothpaste and the standard jail-issue outfit. Anything else they want (and are allowed to have) must be bought from the jail commissary.

They’re allowed to buy $80 worth of items every 10 days, with the shopping schedule broadcast on a channel on televisions in every jail cell. Inmates pay for stuff using their own money or cash deposited into their jail account by others.

At the moment, the commissary sells about 70 products, from underwear and toiletries to chunk chicken and condiments.

Inmates write their orders using small, flexible pens and commissary sheets, noting how many of each item they want. Requested items are bagged and delivered to cells.

Items available for purchase are kept in a couple of rooms at the corrections center. One room holds extra underwear and orange foam, Crocs-like footwear, a popular and more comfortable alternative for inmates. The other room holds grocery, toiletry and other products available for purchase by the 2,000 or so inmates who cycle through the two county jail locations.

The commissary does about $145,000 in sales monthly, or about $1.7 million annually, according to Marc Gofstein, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

In addition to nutty wafers, razors and snack mix, popular items include peanut-butter cracker sandwiches (about 18,700 sold per month at 75 cents each), drink mix (about 20,000 packages of sweetened or unsweetened, at 50 to 80 cents each) and ear plugs (about 5,600 pairs at 50 cents each).

The jail stocks less-popular products: Inmates buy only a couple of packages of $3.75 hair rollers and about two dozen tubes of lip balm every month, for example.

But employees order hundreds of packets of various condiments at a quarter each, including hot sauce, barbecue sauce, squeeze cheese and peanut butter.

Although the coffee is decaf, the commissary also goes through more than 8,500 packs of instant every month. (Inmates are offered only milk and water at meals.)

Coffee “has no nutritional value, so the dietitian took it off of the menu,” said Capt. Carl Trowbridge, who heads the professional services bureau at the sheriff’s office.

Trowbridge said there’s a concerted effort to offer items that inmates want, using opinion surveys. Not all requests are approved. Sardines, for example.

“Everybody knows what sardines smells like when you open it up,” Trowbridge said.

But plenty of items are added. A recent order approved by the commissioners included honey buns, double-decker Moon Pies, Cool Ranch Doritos and greeting cards.

With commissary privileges come commissary rules. Inmates aren’t allowed to exchange items, either with one another or with people on the outside.

All of an inmate’s belongings have to fit in a gray plastic tote with a secure lid, limiting the possibility of stockpiling. “You can’t have your own store,” Trowbridge said.

All commissary purchases are tracked. Razors, for example, are held at deputy stations and handed out only when an inmate needs to shave.

Inmates’ belongings also are checked, and cells are searched routinely to make sure inmates have only what they bought.

Commissary items are supposed to remain in their original form or be used for their intended purpose. That’s not to say that inmates don’t get creative.

Snack mix can be pulverized and mixed with water into a dough molded to contain tuna or other ingredients. Nutty wafers might be mashed with other sweets to make a cake or other dessert.

Regular chunk chicken is sometimes mixed with chicken in hot sauce to stretch the flavor.

Raisins, candy, jelly and drink mix occasionally are used in combination to brew “hooch,” a common jailhouse beverage that’s fermented to provide a buzz for those desperate enough to drink it.

But such alterations come with consequences, including items being confiscated and disciplinary action that could include a loss of commissary access.

“If they behave, they get certain benefits,” Trowbridge said. “If they misbehave, you take away those benefits.”

The new county jail, being constructed on Fisher Road west of Downtown and scheduled to open in mid-2021, will have about eight times the commissary space, meaning more storage and the potential for more commissary variety.

The latter probably will include ramen noodles, a top-selling item at corrections facilities that’s not stocked at the Downtown or Jackson Pike facilities.

“Ramen soup is probably the No. 1 thing that people are requesting,” Trowbridge said. “… Can you imagine how much ramen we’re going to sell?”

By Marc Kovac

The Columbus Dispatch

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