Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Commissary

Sandra, of Add Humor and Faith...Mix Well, and I have been friends for more years than either of us like to think about. We worked for the same large manufacturing company for most of our working lives, and were almost daily lunch partners during the last 15 or more of those years.

When Sandra retired from that company, a couple of years after my retirement, she became the Matron at our County Jail and invited me to take a part-time job working for her in the Jail's Commissary. After over a year of enjoying doing nothing, I was ready to try something on a part-time basis, so I said "yes."

Sandra was officially in charge of the Commissary, but Marie, who had been there many years before we new kids arrived on the block, was the one who had to break us in. And she was good at it...calm, patient, and an excellent trainer.

The Commissary stocked products like snacks and hygiene items that the inmates could order. The Confinement Officers collected the order forms from the inmates and brought them to us in the Commissary. The Commissary "Auditors" audited the forms to make sure that the inmates had followed all the rules of ordering...not too many items and not more than the maximum dollar amount. The Auditors then deducted the the order totals from the inmates' accounts before passing the order forms on to the "Fillers."

The Fillers went through the shelves of products, filling a paper bag with the items the inmate had ordered; stapled the order form to the outside of the bag; and placed it into a cart for that inmate's cell block. The Confinement Officers distributed the bags to the inmates that evening.

The Auditors usually started auditing at 6:00 a.m., with the Fillers arriving an hour later. By then, the Auditors (hopefully) had enough of a head start that the Fillers wouldn't have to stand around waiting for orders to fill. It was a pretty fast-paced and well-synchronized operation. Most days.

I started out as a Filler, but I never was very good at it. It's not as easy as it sounds, and we had a couple of women who had been doing it for years and who were very fast and efficient at it. I felt almost in the way when I worked with them. I eventually worked my way into an auditing job, only filling on an as-needed basis. And they almost never needed MY help.

Normally, we had three Auditors and four Fillers. On occasion, when we anticipated an extra heavy day of orders or when we knew we were going to be short handed, the Auditors would go in early to get as much done as possible before the Fillers arrived.

On one April morning, Sandra was scheduled to be off; and Beckie, our backup Auditor, had to have emergency gall bladder surgery. That just left Marie and me to get enough orders audited so that the Fillers would have work to do when they arrived. So we agreed to go in extra early that morning.

As I was headed out the door at 4:00 a.m., the phone rang. I picked it up and heard Marie's sweet, unexcited voice saying, "Do you think you could handle things by yourself today?"

I said, with a confidence I didn't feel, "Probably. What's going on?"

Well, Marie had stopped at the bank's night drop on her way in to work. When she got out of the car to drop her mortgage payment into the slot, the car began to roll. Afraid that it would roll into traffic and cause an accident, she had chased it down and tried to reach in and grab the steering wheel or the gear shift lever. But, in the process, she had fallen; and the car had run over her legs. She had managed to get up and get into the vehicle, which had stopped when it came to an incline, and was then driving herself back home. She had called her husband, and he was going to take her to the hospital to get checked out.

So I assured Marie that we would manage without her, wished her well, and hurried off to the Jail to do my best. I knew that, if I had called Sandra, she would have delayed her planned trip to visit her son and family in North Carolina; and I didn't want her to do that. When she called in, as she usually did when she knew we were limping along without her, I made sure she was far enough out of town that coming back wasn't an option before I told her what had happened.

Every member of the Commissary team pulled together that day and managed to get all the orders filled. None of the others knew how to take the inmates' money off their accounts, but one of them sat down at Marie's desk and audited the order forms, which took a huge load off me. All I had to do was the computer side of it, taking the money off the inmates' accounts. We weren't able to stay ahead of the fillers, but they busied themselves with restocking and other jobs whenever they got ahead of us. It was truly a team effort.

It was a privilege to work with that group of women who made up the Commissary team. They were hard workers, every one; and they had fun while they were at it.

Marie's poor legs were badly bruised, but nothing was broken. That was a miracle for which we were all grateful. We managed without her, but we surely were happy to see her when she returned to work.


  1. What a great story about teamwork and dedication. And of course friendship. So nice of you to wait until Sandra was too far to turn back. I'll bet you were a fun group!

  2. Hilary-We had more fun in that job than anyone has a right to have at work, and most of it was due to the atmosphere cultivated by Sandra. One of us (or maybe both of us) ought to post about some of the Commissary craziness that occurred during our years there.

  3. Interesting job, Linda.... Did you ever have many dealings with the inmates???? I guess that would be sorta frightening---but maybe not... Bet you have alot of interesting stories to tell.

    Glad Marie's legs were okay...

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. It WAS an interesting job, Betsy. I may post some more about it in the future. We didn't have any direct contact with inmates, other than with a few trustys, although we did walk past holding cells and officers escorting inmates through the corridors as we went to and from the Commissary.

    Marie still has problems with her legs from that accident, but it could have been so much worse.

  5. What a great description of how the Commissary worked. I've always found it a little hard to describe.

    I remember when I called in. You didn't sound quite as calm as you would have liked to. But, you're right -- if we hadn't already been hours down the road on our trip, I would have turned around and come back. Thanks for that. :)

    That really was a special group of women, and we do need to write more about our experience there. It was special, wasn't it. :)

  6. Sandra-I WASN'T calm! The other ladies had to put up with my stressed-out attitude, in addition to the extra work load that day. But they were wonderful, stepping up and doing whatever needed to be done. Thanks for taking me with you on that job. It was memorable.

  7. It is fun to keep busy, but kind of a rough place to work I would think. I applied for an educator position at a prison ,but after they turned me down I wasn't sure I would have stayed very long or not. I worked volunteer in a juevnile felon program and had my eyes opened.My last five years with the schoolsI worked with low IQ behavioral kids and many of them have seen the inside of a jail unfortunately.

  8. Oh, wow! This is a great post, Linda! It's probably a miracle that that poor woman wasn't killed!! And the way you handled everything was remarkable. Huge pats on the back for you and that whole team!

  9. Thanks, Cheryl. There may be some more commissary posts in the future. It was an interesting job.

  10. OOTP-This was my only experience working in a confinement facility, apart from a brief stint in a work release facility. I was always a little uncomfortable passing through the Jail to reach the Commissary. Once in the Commissary, though, we were in a secure area, where inmates were never present, except for an occasional trusty who was always with an escort.


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