The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) commissary is like a convenience store -- incarcerated prisoners get some semblance of real life by purchasing goodies like candy, soft drinks, beef stew, chili in pouches, tobacco, pencils, paper and their favorite personal hygiene products.

The commissary is a self-sufficient entity and receives no state funding, forcing the MDOC to run it efficiently to yield the most profit.

A 21st-Century Commissary

Unfortunately the MDOC's commissary was anything but efficient until the middle of last year. In May, the MDOC began implementing a corrections management system that included a special software module specifically written to help the MDOC run its commissary.

The first phase of the overall corrections management system focused on the commissary software. The second phase, started in December 2003, automated the overall incarceration and movements of inmates.

Now many tasks prison personnel did manually to manage inmate "bank" accounts and commissary inventory are automated, reducing the manpower needed and eliminating time-consuming processes that previously strained the old commissary system. Tasks that once took days now take seconds.

"We had a computer system before, but we had to do a lot of the work manually," said MDOC Division Director Stan Evans. "This takes that manual work out of it. I actually sat down and told them what I wanted the system to do. They built it in about six months, and it worked out really well."

Before the MDOC installed Motorola's Offendertrak system, the old way of managing the commissary required inmates to fill out a form for each item ordered. Staff then had to manually pull each item and tally the inmate's order. If the inmate had insufficient funds in his account, staff had to go back and return some of the items. Commissary/inmate account staff also had to manually check commissary restrictions on inmates.

With the automated process, inmates get a sheet of available products with codes for each. The inmate pencils in bubbles to specify the code for each item requested, and the sheet goes into the computer, which checks each item's availability, the inmate's account balance and whether there are restrictions on what the inmate can purchase.

The system then spits out a receipt that tells staff what items to get from inventory and reconciles the inmate's account balance.

"You know the money has already been taken out of his account, and you know the stuff is on the shelf," said Evans. "All you have to do is pull the order and deliver it. It's simple."

Inmates sometimes had their accounts frozen until more money came in to cover spending. If an inmate had to go to the hospital -- for which $6 is deducted -- and didn't have the money in his account, it would be frozen until funds were received. MDOC staff never knew exactly when freezes occurred, and because the process of checking account status was time consuming for staff, inmates were sometimes denied purchases for a while.

The new system tracks the overdrafts automatically.

"The system sets up liability for the remaining money owed, and as soon as that money comes in, it automatically goes to medical," said Evans.

Evans said 90 percent of the money inmates get comes from friends and family, but 300 to 400 inmates work at the facility making inmate clothing, and working in bookbindery and metal fabrication shops for 15 to 35 cents per hour.

The money inmates spend at the commissary first goes to cover total costs of running the commissary -- payroll, labor and equipment. Net profits go to the Inmate Welfare Fund, which covers the costs of library books, recreational equipment and other benefits for inmates.

The MDOC made $1.2 million in profits last year. What used to take

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor