Canteen is the name for the equivalent of a school Tuck Shop where Inmates can buy a limited range of goods that you might find in a poorly stocked corner shop. The prices seem reasonably fair but except in those few prisons where Canteen is still run by the Prison Officers, that is where fairness and good order seems to remain.
Inmates can have limited amounts of cash sent into Prison. This is called Private Cash. The Prison Service likes to have the cash sent into the Prison by Postal Order but you can send a cheque. Cash is not welcomed and you cannot hand it in, it must be posted. You can send any amount of cash into Prison, c/o The Governor. It will be paid into the Inmate's Private Cash Account from which money can be transferred to the Spends Account to the limit of the Regime Entitlement.
An inmate also has an Earnings Account into which the Prison pays unemployment benefit of £2.50 a week if you are unemployed or amounts ranging from £1-11 to £2-50 a day as wages for work done. The actual amount depends upon The Governor. Quite why different amounts should be paid in the various prisons for very similar tasks is beyond comprehension but it is a fact of being inside. You even get paid for attending Education. Once again the amount to be transferred to the Spends Account is controlled by the Regime.
Finally there is an advance account. On entry or transfer the Prison Service lends you £4 to get you started with tobacco and a telephone card. The amount advanced is repaid at 50p per week.
So the four accounts are: Spends, Private Cash, Earnings and Advance.
If you are transferring prisons it can take a few days for cash balances to catch up on you. I saw a few disputes about balances and they were mainly concerned with transfers. Quite why computerisation cannot deal with such matters I have no idea, perhaps the administration of the Prisoners Canteen is as archaic as many prison buildings.
In the Prisons where they run their own Canteen you can go along to the shop once or twice a week and buy to the limit of cash available. The money is deducted from your account, you get the goods instantly.
But in those Prisons where Arramark have the contract, the Canteen is nothing short of a shambles. The head of the Prison Service in a BBC Programme received many complaints about Arramark. I had a personal problem with them and on Canteen Day the Wing Office was always full of inmates complaining about wrong delivery, short deliver and other problems.
If you have a problem it can take for ever to get it sorted out. You have to fill in a form to get a form to complain. Don't expect a reply in under a month. If it is a shortage problem, you will have lost the use of the money until the complaint is answered.
It is possible to order larger items from Index or Argos. With a few limitations, if it is in the catalogue you can order it. It takes these two firms four or more weeks to deliver the items which outside they deliver in just 48 hours. No doubt the delay is down to the Prison Service and not the catalogue companies. The delay is annoying but a mistake can be catastrophic. One man I came across complaining had ordered a £50 radio but Argos had sent the wrong one costing nearly £150. No doubt the mistake was really made by Arramark. The man had the money in his spends account but did not want to spend that much so he complained. The wrong radio was taken off him and he was told to fill in a complaint form. I now know it took more than 6 weeks to sort that out.
The matters on the outside would be quite trivial and would be sorted out quickly. On the inside these seemingly trivial matters take on major proportions in the minds of the inmate and there is little they can do to resolve the matter. Little wonder that frustrations, anger and loss of faith in Prison Officers results. At worst suicide and self mutilation is the result.
Although in those Prisons where the Prison Service runs the Canteen, the facility is not perfect, it is a darned sight better than Arramark. The Home Secretary should rid the Prison Service of a Canteen Service run for profit.