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

Tommaso Bardelli, Zach Gillespie, Thuy Linh Tu

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    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 institutionalization, 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 conceptualizes commissary as a double-edged institution: on the one hand, prison commissary stores—where people can purchase a wide variety of items, from extra food to small appliances—constitute a crucial mechanism for extending financial extraction inside carceral 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 functions as a mediating structure in contemporary US prisons, enabling some prisoners to negotiate carceral punishment, while leaving others fully exposed to its harmful consequences.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)955-976
    Number of pages22
    JournalPunishment and Society
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Oct 2023


    • austerity
    • carceral state
    • commissary
    • financial extraction
    • neoliberalism
    • punishment

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
    • Law


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