As a vegetarian on a restricted diet, Joel Davis is often the first to notice when commissary items become scarce.

“I literally have to remove the vegetables from my lunch tray and save them until I can see if there is anything on the dinner tray to combine them with,” Davis said. “I’m used to fasting a lot, so I often just go without eating.”

In July, Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) Director Rob Jeffreys issued a memo to all 28 IDOC prisons warning incarcerated people that there would be a commissary shortage in the near future. Davis, who has been incarcerated at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Illinois, since 1992, said he knew the warning wouldn’t prepare him for what he’d soon be enduring. 

Commissary stores are the core of the prison retail market and have been criticized for shifting “the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people and their families,” forcing them to buy items such as shampoo, toilet paper, groceries, and stamps and envelopes at a steep markup, up to a maximum of 25% for non-tobacco products and 35% for tobacco products.   

IDOC has a long history of commissary shortages, but after a bidding war between private commissary vendors that began in March 2021 and concluded with multiple disputes and a canceled contract, incarcerated people in Illinois have been deprived of accessing basic necessities for months. 

“The commissary situation is unlike anything I’ve seen in the 30 years I’ve been here,” Davis said. 

In October, Jeffreys sent out a second memo blaming the commissary shortage on COVID-19’s impact on the global supply chain. However, many advocates like Alan Mills, the executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, believe that supply chain issues are a shallow excuse.

“Really, all it takes is money,” Mills said. “So the real question is, why hasn’t the DOC spent whatever money is needed on an emergency basis to solve this problem? I guarantee if the problem were there weren’t enough handcuffs, they would have figured out how to buy more handcuffs. This is a question of priorities to the Department, not a question of ability to provide commissary.”

Meals served in IDOC are often inadequate and unappetizing, with one person reporting that a dinner consisted of two pieces of toast and a hard-boiled egg. Davis said he has seen many people become sick from eating IDOC’s food. 

“Just looking at the health and well-being of inmates is enough to make you not want to eat,” he said. 

Without the option of buying food from the commissary to supplement meals, many people are now going to bed hungry. On Dec. 16, 2021, only seven of 46 food options were in stock at Danville Correctional Center during the Omicron surge.       

Not only are people struggling to access food, but essential hygiene items have also been unavailable for purchase. 

“Commissary is about a lot more than candy bars,” said Julie Anderson, the founder and coordinator of Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children. “It’s toiletries, soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, toothpaste. When you have 100 men in a small confined space without proper hygiene products, and there’s COVID, it’s a problem.”

During the winter months, people have been unable to buy extra underwear, socks, and clothing to keep warm. Without access to basic necessities, some people are driven to steal or trade items in an up-charged black market, risking corrections officers’ write-ups, time in solitary confinement, and good time policies.

Anderson notes that “historically, the issue with commissary is that [corrections officers] use it as punishment.” Anthony Jones, who was formerly incarcerated in Dixon Correctional Center, recalls a tense atmosphere on commissary days. 

Jones said units would line up in twos, and corrections officers expected lines to be tight. Talking would result in being sent back to your cell. Receiving a minor ticket could result in 30 days, 60 days, or even 90 days “no-shop,” which restricted people from going to commissary and could be viewed as a disproportionate consequence considering the insufficient IDOC meals.

Jones, who is now community educator at the Illinois Prison Project, said no-shop tickets could be petitioned to the warden, but most people who had their petitions approved were working for or trying to get “in” with the administration. 

“If you were someone who filed a lot of grievances, you’d find yourself in commissary denial a lot,” Jones said.

IDOC makes over $48.4 million in annual commissary sales, according to a 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative. In 2011, a group of incarcerated men at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill attempted to file a class action lawsuit against prison officials and the governor for violating their rights by inflating commissary prices beyond the statutory cap. The judge ruled that people do not have a constitutional right to commissary, so lawyers such as Mills now have no legal ground to sue IDOC over shortages. 

“While commissary is really important to prisoners, it’s not a constitutional right,” Mills said. “It’s just a human right. After mail, commissary is one of the things that people really depend on.”

To receive assistance with basic necessities from the IDOC, folks must qualify as indigent and have only $5 or less in their “inmate trust fund,” making assistance inaccessible to many. In the majority of facilities, people are only allowed to go to commissary once or twice a month, and have a limit on how many items and how much money they can spend. 

Family members are anxious to send food and supplies to their loved ones, but the IDOC bars most donations and does not allow care packages to be sent in from vendors, despite other states and even some Illinois jails allowing the practice. 

Anderson, whose son has been incarcerated for 26 years, laments, “As a family member, it’s really frustrating because the IDOC promised that we would be able to send in care packages. That was way back in November, and it’s still not available. So when they say it’s supply chain issues, it’s misleading.”

During his time at Dixon, Jones remembers the facility receiving donations during the holidays. The warden went through a sample bag and rejected items not because they were contraband but because they were already sold in commissary.   

Many like Jones believe the current commissary shortage is only one symptom of a larger, exploitative system. Jones is sure that if IDOC allowed care packages or donations to be sent in, the shortage would be quickly resolved. Additionally, having multiple vendors to ensure there isn’t a monopoly could act as a temporary solution. 

“So many people rely on commissary to sustain themselves,” he said. “The officers, the staff, and the administration know exactly what it is. They’re exploiting poor people who really have no other option but to buy these things.”

An IDOC spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Mai Tran is a genderqueer Vietnamese American writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Apogee, Vox, i-D, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Find her online at maistran.com.