Inmate Commissaries

Inmate Commissaries


What is the legal basis for Tennessee Business Enterprises?
TBE has its roots in federal enabling legislation found at 20 U.S.C. 107d commonly referred to as the Randolph-Sheppard Act. On the state level, T.C.A. 71-4-501 et seq. provides the legal basis.

What constitutes a vending facility?
Any operation that sells products or services. This would include facilities that consist of automatic vending machines or require manual selling. Included would be cafeterias, snack bars, cart services, catering, concessions, vending machines, and inmate commissaries.

Exactly what does priority mean?
Simply put, it means first right of refusal.

What properties are covered by the state law?
Most buildings owned or leased by the State of Tennessee or any county, municipality, or any other entity created by the General Assembly.

Does the priority apply to inmate commissaries that are operated off-site with products being delivered to the inmates?
Yes. All commissaries operated by TBE in county jails are off-site operations.

Is TBE required to provide inmate accounting software and hardware for use in a jail operation?
No; however, TBE will generally provide both software and hardware voluntarily if the county wishes. These are provided at no cost to the county.

Does TBE have its own software that it uses?
Yes, in most locations TBE has its own software that was developed specifically for TBE Inmate Commissaries. TBE also partners with Aramark Correctional Services and uses its ACTFAS software in a few locations. TBE makes the software available for use by the county at no cost.

Who actually runs the facility on a daily basis?
The licensed manager is totally in charge of the day-to-day operations. It is his/her business and they are responsible for all aspects of the business including hiring and firing employees, ordering and delivering product, invoicing the county and other functions.

Does the blind vendor make the actual deliveries to the inmates?
In most cases, the blind vendor will hire employees to handle this portion of the operation similar to other commissary providers.

Do we have any say on who the licensed manager will be?
TBE has a system set up for promotions and transfers that includes an interview with a three-member selection panel. In some cases, a property management representative may participate in that interview and selection process. Additionally, property management can make certain requirements of the licensed manager and his/her employees such as requiring them to undergo fingerprinting and background checks.

What about security?
The sheriff establishes security procedures for the jail and the blind vendor and his/her employees will adhere to those procedures. The sheriff may require background checks on the blind vendors as well as any employees and may also require training that is consistent with that of any other person who has business in the jail. The commissary warehouse is also open for inspection at any time by the sheriff.

Who determines what will be sold to inmates?
The sheriff.

Who establishes the prices of products?
The blind vendor is required to charge prices that are competitive with those in the general vicinity. Annual market comparisons are conducted to ensure that prices being charged inmates are in the competitive range. Guidelines can be established for when and how price increases will occur.

Do we have to do an RFP or bid?
No. It is like any other set aside program. You can come directly to TBE and negotiate for the service desired. If you want to develop an RFP that includes the specifications that you would like, that is okay but it does not have to be sent to other potential bidders unless TBE waives its priority.

What if the county is under contract with a private commissary provider?
TBE doesn’t want to put a county in a position of liability by forcing it to cancel a contract with a current commissary provider, provided the contract was entered into prior to being made aware of TBE’s statutory priority and the county agrees not to exercise any options on the contract. If a contract was entered into knowingly in violation of the law, TBE will pursue litigation to recover any proceeds generated by the commissary. TBE works to be flexible in these situations provided the counties work with TBE in good faith.

What if we are not happy with the service provided by TBE’s licensed blind vendor?
If you experience such troubling issues, you may contact the Business Enterprises Consultant responsible for supervising that facility.

Does the operation generate any revenue for the county?
The law forbids a county from making the payment of a commission a condition for allowing a TBE Manager to operate its commissary. However, TBE understands the revenue needs of counties so we work with individual counties to the extent practical to at least help offset any costs associated with providing the commissary services. One way this is accomplished is by assessing a transaction fee for each order placed by an inmate. These funds can generally be passed on to the county. In larger jails, TBE may require its Manager to make a lump sum annual payment to the county in lieu of a commission. TBE's commissary Managers also often provide indigent packs to inmates at no cost to the county which results in a significant cost savings to a county. Such arrangements are negotiated with the individual counties.

What if we are talking about a small operation with a limited number of beds?
A small operation may not support a blind vendor. TBE would have to survey each location to determine its viability for a blind vendor. In most cases, TBE would have a licensed blind vendor in the general area and the commissary could be added to his/her facility as an attachment. Another option is arranging for the service to be provided remotely with orders drop shipped to a jail.

How many inmate commissaries does TBE currently operate?
We currently operate approximately 29 inmate commissaries.

If the law applies to all 95 counties, why does TBE operate so few commissaries?
TBE initially focused its efforts on the larger jails that could provide a livelihood for a licensed blind vendor. TBE is also interested in controlled growth and doesn’t have the resources to pursue all 95 counties at one time. TBE is pursuing several other county locations at this time and has plans for several others.

Other than a blind person benefiting, who else benefits if TBE assumes a commissary as compared to a third party company?
There are no in-state companies that operate inmate commissaries; therefore, TBE keeps more of the money in-state. The blind vendors hire Tennessee workers rather than jobs going out-of-state. Blind vendors purchase products from local suppliers which private companies do not do.

What if a county refuses to cooperate with TBE?
The law establishes procedures to resolve such disagreements. Either the county or TBE has the right to file a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office and that allows an administrative law judge to resolve the issue. In addition, if TBE is aware of a county that has entered into a contract without affording TBE the opportunity to exercise its priority, TBE may notify the County Audit Division of the State Comptroller’s Office which could result in an audit finding.

What if a jail has no commissary? Can TBE force the county to start providing a commissary service?
TBE will not force a county to provide an inmate commissary service against its will.

What if a sheriff self operates his/her commissary? Can TBE come in and take it away from him?
The Attorney General has rendered an opinion that indicates a county does not have the option of self-operating a commissary if TBE wishes to exercise its priority. As a practical matter, TBE has elected not to exercise its priority in several counties where the sheriffs have always self-operated their commissaries. However, if a county elects to bring a contracted commissary operation in-house, it can only do so if TBE does not exercise its priority. Therefore, any county with a contracted commissary that wishes to self-operate its jail commissary should contact TBE first to see if there is any interest in exercising the statutory priority.

What about any vending machines that are located in the jail?
Vending machines are covered under the statutory priority. If a county desires vending machines, they are required under the law to contact TBE. TBE will either assign a licensed blind vendor or arrange for third party vending.

What is meant by “legally blind?”
A person has vision of 20/200 in his/her better eye with best correction or a field loss of less than 20 degrees. The reality is that most blind people have some functional vision.