New commissary program offers inmates more variety

 

Sheriff’s Sgt. Matt Tindell observed as jail inmates stacked bright blue storage containers on orange carts – 12 to a cart – as they prepared for the weekly delivery of commissary purchases at the Charles B. Webster Detention Center.

The blue plastic tubs, about 70 in all, contained more than $12,000 in snack foods, toiletries and clothing items that inmates had ordered the week before.

“This is really a small load,” Tindell said. “We have three pods on lockdown.”

Tindell explained that when inmates have disciplinary problems, individuals or entire cell blocks, they lose their commissary privileges.

“This food is an attention getter,” he said. “If they don’t get something they want, they start to behave.”

In the year since the Richmond County jail began its new commissary program, inmates have spent about $14,000 each month, all without jail personnel touching a single dime.

“The only thing we had a year ago was a vending machine,” said Maj. Gene Johnson, the sheriff’s jail administrator.

That vending machine was the only access inmates had to snacks and a few other items, and they had to have cash to buy from it, he said. Inmates were allowed no more than $35 per week, which had to be delivered to the jail by a friend or family member, Johnson said.

The money had to be accounted for and hand-delivered to each inmate.

“Every now and then a guard would mess up and give it to the wrong inmate,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Now the jail has about 40 electronic kiosks that inmates can use to purchase things they want or need and through which family members can provide money for them to use.

The jail has done away with handling inmate money, Johnson said. Now each inmate has an individual account, which he can access through the Smart Deposit kiosks on each jail pod. Family members can add money to their accounts through other kiosks, such as one in the visitor center, or online through the company Web site. There are fees ranging from $2 to $5 for people to add money to the accounts. The company operates systems in jails and prisons in 12 states.

“We were really the last jail in Georgia to start doing this,” Johnson said.

The reasons for doing this number in the thousands, Johnson said. The jail takes a 26 percent cut of all sales and service fees, which equaled more than $160,000 last year, he said.

That money goes right back into the jail to replace old or broken equipment and buy other supplies, such as new inmate uniforms, he said.

Inmates are still limited to about $90 in purchases each week, but that will buy a lot of junk food. Inmates place orders through the kiosks, which are tallied and packed with items shipped to the jail each Tuesday.

The blue tubs contain individual clear plastic bags with an invoice for each inmate, so they can check their orders. The bags are generally stuffed with snacks, but they also contain toothpaste and toilet paper, something that most inmates have to provide for themselves.

“We give them a care package when they arrive, but after that they have to buy their own,” Johnson said.

Inmates who don’t have any money or family to provide them with resources must ask to be declared indigent, he said. After that, they are given the necessities, but if jailers see that they have money to order junk food, they won’t be getting any toothpaste or soap from the jail, he said.

The commissary has an extensive list of items available, from chips and candy to playing cards and underwear.

“They order a lot of ramen noodles,” Johnson said. “They love that stuff.”

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