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In Alabama, state prisoners say items purchased from commissaries are vital to their survival and comfort. But a Reckon investigation has found that the Alabama Department of Corrections pays most inmates nothing for the jobs they perform behind bars while the prison stores charge inflated prices and bring in millions of dollars of profit each year.

Commissary Slips, an immersive news app created for Reckon by investigative reporter Connor Sheets, illustrates harsh realities of life in Alabama prisons through the lens of the prison commissary, a frequently misunderstood feature of the state’s incarceral system.

This app, which has a runtime of about 20 minutes, puts you in the prison-issued shoes of Justin Faircloth, an actual state inmate, who says he relies on commissary items to meet basic needs. You’ll have the chance to spend money in a virtual commissary, then hear directly from experts as well as Faircloth and his wife, Amber, during this interactive journey.

To many people who haven’t done time, the term prison commissary conjures images of a window where inmates line up to buy chips, magazines and other extras to indulge their sweet tooth or help break the monotony of life on the inside. But in Alabama, the reality is much starker.

Inmates in Alabama prisons say commissaries are an essential part of incarcerated life because prison kitchens often don’t serve enough food to keep them full and nourished. Also, the state only provides small quantities of low-quality hygiene products.

But our investigation found that in Alabama, most state inmates are not paid for the jobs they perform in prison. And you have to have money to buy commissary items, which are often more expensive than they would be on the outside. 

For instance, records obtained by Reckon show that a 13.5-ounce box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal that retails for around $3 at many grocery stores sells for $6.83 at Alabama’s prison commissaries. A pack of Newports will set you back $11.04 in state correctional facilities where smoking is allowed, while that same pack would cost about $7 at most Alabama gas stations.

If you don’t have a loved one to put money in your commissary account, you either go without necessities or find another way to make money. Often, inmates resort to prostitution, gambling or distributing drugs, which contributes to the cycle of violence and exploitation in prisons.

Meanwhile, the network of commissaries operating in more than two dozen Alabama Department of Corrections facilities across the state brings in an average of more than $1 million in profit each month, according to records obtained by Reckon. 

Commissary Slips shows the reality of how commissaries work, and how their operation drives other problems behind bars.

Click here to view the detailed response the Alabama Department of Corrections provided to a series of questions prior to the publication of this app.