To Illinois prisoners, commissary is more than candy bars, shaving cream and socks. It represents normalcy and choice.
“It’s everything to them,” said Melly Rios, whose husband is in Stateville Correctional Center serving 45 years for murder.
A recent report from the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, detailed widespread supply shortages at Illinois Department of Corrections prison commissaries around the state. Soap, deodorant, detergent, writing materials, thermal shirts, socks, underwear and canned meat and noodles are all in short supply.
“It’s not like luxury items like candy bars or the hot new Christmas gift. These commissaries provide items that are basic necessities,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.
Mills has litigated prisoner civil rights cases for more than 40 years.
An IDOC spokesperson wrote in an email that COVID-19 has affected global supply chains, leading to shortages. Essential raw materials are not making it to distribution centers, and there is a shortage of workers in manufacturing centers and logistic companies, she wrote.
But the John Howard report released Monday points to a new vendor and a contentious bidding process. In June 2021, Keefe Group was awarded the contract for the entire IDOC system. The contract award was contested by another vendor that was not awarded the contract. IDOC then was contracted on an emergency basis with Keefe to provide items.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director for the John Howard Association, believes both things are contributing to the shortages.
“I think that it’s a combination of those things,” Vollen-Katz said. “But it’s confounding to me why it has taken so long to resolve.”
IDOC received approval and entered into five emergency contracts with vendors, an IDOC spokesperson said. The department expects that the expanded contracts and more available avenues for purchasing will allow for the restocking of prison commissaries.
Two weeks ago, IDOC distributed bags of food and hygiene items including toothpaste and brushes into care packages to all inmates.
It’s a nice short-term solution, Mills said. But with an agency facing staffing shortages and a global pandemic, Mills said this should be an easy fix.
Under current security protocols, care packages from the public cannot be accepted at IDOC prisons. The John Howard Association put forth the suggestion to allow friends and family members of inmates to buy care packages from already approved vendors so they could be shipped directly to inmates.
“Right now, that is not approved, but we hope they will consider it,” Vollen-Katz said.
Rios told Capitol News Illinois in a phone call that she talks to her husband every day. As she headed home to call him Tuesday afternoon, she raised her voice to speak over the traffic noise. She’s worried, she said. He’s lost weight since he is unable to get noodles and canned meat. But it’s more than that. It’s his state of mind at losing one more thing, she said.
“I know many people may think that they are bad people, but if you are going to put them in there, you have to take care of them,” Rios said. “I have to be his voice. It’s the only one he has right now.”
• Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.