'Orange Is The New Black' Exposes The Bizarre Retail Market Inside Of Prisons


Economics reporter Adam Davidson recently binged on the Netflix prison dramedy "Orange is The New Black" and realized prisons house a "strange corner of the retail market."


Writing in the New York Times, Davidson notes that prisons all have a commissary, a bodega of sorts where inmates can buy toiletries like deodorant and fun items like M&Ms, and private contractors run these commissaries about half the time.

While inmates actually end up using the products sold in the commissary, it's the prisons that choose contractors and stock commissaries. As one private contractor told Davidson, "The institution is our customer. Not the prisoner."

In the book "Orange is The New Black" that inspired the series, it's clear prisoners aren't really the commissaries' customers when the protagonist Piper Kerman has to wait months to buy a portable radio to play while she jogs.

The Department of Justice began allowing prison commissaries at each federal prison back in 1930. Family and friends have to deposit money so prisoners can buy basic items like shampoo as well as "luxury" items like the radio that made it easier for Kerman to do her time. Prisons can't let family members ship these items directly because they might try to smuggle in contraband.


George Zimmerman, who gained a tremendous amount of weight before his trial, used his commissary money mostly to buy snacks, NBC News reported last year. His $99 commissary tab included Cheez-Its, Big Grandma's Chocolate Chip cookies, animal crackers, Twix, peanut M&Ms, Cheetos, and strawberry Pop-Tarts.

However, since the contractors that provide commissary items don't have to cater directly to prisoners, not every prisoner has access to name-brand snacks like these. America's biggest supplier of prison products is a privately owned company called Keefe Group that doesn't offer a ton of appetizing products, Davidson notes.

Keefe Group doesn't have to worry about appealing to hungry prisoners who want peanut M&Ms, though. As Davidson writes, those hungry prisoners aren't the ones selecting the private contractor.

Head over to The New York Times for Davidson's full analysis >