For prisons to function smoothly and profitably, the major tools of control – violence, surveillance, separation – must be complimented by a host of less obvious instruments and technologies. These include censorship in the mail room, the cultivation of racial tension, integration of prisoner labor into facility maintenance, cafeteria operations, and private contracting, among many others. This week on Kite Line, we go in depth on another of these minor but vitally important aspects of the prison: commissary, the private market run by prisons to sell products to prisoners. We include research projects and interviews with current and ex-prisoners that demonstrate how commissary is vital for supplementing inadequate diets, protecting social status, maintaining communication with the free world, and – from the perspective of prison administrators – racking up enormous profits.

One of the people we interview in this episode reflects on how prison distorts your sense of proportion. Suddenly minor variables can translate into life-or-death stakes, which is the best summary we’ve heard of the role of commissary.