Surviving austerity: Commissary stores, inequality and punishment in the contemporary American prison

Published date01 October 2023
AuthorTommaso Bardelli,Zach Gillespie,Thuy Linh Tu
Date01 October 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Surviving austerity:
Commissary stores,
inequality and punishment
in the contemporary
American prison
Tommaso Bardelli
New York University, USA
Zach Gillespie
New York University, USA
Thuy Linh Tu
New York University, USA
Privatization and austerity measures have turned US prisons and jails into sites of
f‌inancial extraction. As corrections systems have slashed budgets for essential services,
incarcerated individuals are increasingly expected to cover the costs of their institution-
alization, including amounts for administrative fees and legal support, and for covering
basic necessities during incarceration. This article focuses on the commissary system
as a central yet understudied institution of the American neo-liberal prison. It concep-
tualizes commissary as a double-edged institution: on the one hand, prison commissary
storeswhere people can purchase a wide variety of items, from extra food to small
appliancesconstitute a crucial mechanism for extending f‌inancial extraction inside car-
ceral institutions, siphoning millions of dollars each year from impoverished households.
At the same time, we argue, shopping at commissary allows incarcerated persons to
mitigate against the punitive frugality imposed by the prison and to limit the reach of
disciplinary power. Drawing on qualitative research with sixty formerly incarcerated
men in New York State, and on the personal experiences of one of the authors with
the New York penal system, this article reconstructs how access to economic capital
Corresponding author:
TommasoBardelli, Prison Education Program Research Lab, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.
Punishment & Society
2023, Vol. 25(4) 955976
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14624745221118345
functions as a mediating structure in contemporary US prisons, enablin g some prisoners
to negotiate carceral punishment, while leaving others fully exposed to its harmful
austerity, carceral state, commissary, f‌inancial extraction, neoliberalism, punishment
Privatization and f‌iscal austerity have turned US prisons and jails into sites of f‌inancial
extraction in which a predatory state(Page and Soss, 2021; Wang, 2018) draws
growing amounts of resources from poor, and predominantly black and brown, commu-
nities. Through revenue-generating strategies such as bail (Page et al., 2019), legal f‌ines
(Harris et al., 2010; Slavinski and Pettit, 2021), as well as pay-to-stayand other admin-
istrative fees (Friedman et al., 2021; Kirk et al., 2020), incarcerated individuals and their
families are required to underwrite the f‌inancial costs of the carceral state. Prison commis-
sary storeswhere individuals can purchase everything from extra food, clothes, small
appliances (such as lamps, fans, or cooking pots), to personal care itemshave
become yet another mechanism to further extend this extraction. With states slashing
funding for essential goods and services for the incarcerated (Gottschalk, 2010), families
have come under growing pressure to contribute to their loved oneswell-being. Under
such conditions, prison commissary stores increasingly work as a form of direct aid to f‌ill
in for the absence or withdrawal of public resources, siphoning billions of dollars each
year from communities most impacted by mass incarceration (Prison Policy Initiative,
While many scholars have written about changes in contemporary US prisons due the
rise of mass incarceration (Kreager and Kruttschnitt, 2018; Simon, 2000; Wacquant,
2001), few have addressed the effects of austerity and f‌inancial extraction on the everyday
lives of incarcerated individuals (Gibson-Light, 2018, is one exception). Yet, austerity
has become a new material context in which the experiences of incarceration unfold,
shaping both how punishment is enacted and how individuals adapt to and view it.
Drawing on qualitative research with sixty formerly incarcerated men in New York
State, this study focuses on the commissary system as a central, if understudied, institu-
tion of the US predatory state. As the main mechanism by which money f‌lows inside,
commissary is both a site of resource extraction and, we argue, the structure through
which incarcerated individuals establish and negotiate their economic and social status.
Moving our analysis beyond the moment of extraction to trace how f‌inancial resources
are dispersed and circulate inside, our study sheds lights on the role of commissary stores
in the social order of contemporary US prisons. By drawing f‌inancial resources from
outside the prison, commissary and other forms of consumer spending generate a socio-
economic hierarchy inside: those at the topthe jail rich”—are able to mitigate against
956 Punishment & Society 25(4)

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