Inmate Commissary

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Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-4-502(5) defines the term “vending facility” as follows:  “Vending facility” means a location or structure or space that may sell foods, beverages, confections, newspapers, periodicals, tobacco products, and other articles and services that are dispensed automatically by a machine or manually by sales personnel or attendants and that may be prepared on or off premises in accordance with applicable health laws. A “vending facility” may consist, exclusively or in appropriate combination as determined by the Tennessee Department of Human Services, of automatic vending machines, cafeterias, snack bars, catering services, food concession vehicles, cart services, shelters, counters, and any appropriate equipment necessary for the sale of articles or services described in this subdivision (5). A “vending facility” may encompass more than one (1) building on a public property.

Authority to Operate a Jail Commissary

Counties owe their creation to the statutes, and the statutes  confer on them all the powers which they possess, prescribe all the duties they owe, and impress all the liabilities to which they are subject.” State v. Stine, 292 S.W.2d 771, 772 (Tenn. 1956), quoting Burnett v. Maloney, 37 S.W. 689, 693 (Tenn. 1896).

Tennessee statutory law imposes upon the sheriff a multitude of mandatory duties designed to promote an inmate’s welfare. T.C.A. § 41-4-101, et seq.

Although there are Tennessee statutes that refer to jail commissaries, under current Tennessee law, there is no authority for a sheriff’s office to operate a jail commissary, regardless of whether it is operated on a for profit basis or not for profit basis. Furthermore, engaging in such unauthorized activity may result in undesired consequences. For example, “when a county departs from its governmental activities and engages in a business enterprise for gain, which would ordinarily be taxable and which the county is not authorized to engage in, that it then becomes liable for the tax.” State v. Hamilton County, 144 S.W.2d 749, 751 (Tenn. 1940). The Rules of the Tennessee Corrections Institute, Rule 1400-1-.15(4) indicates that an inmate commissary may be available by which inmates can purchase approved items that are not furnished by the facility.  If one is provided, the commissary operations shall be strictly controlled using standard accounting procedures.

As previously stated, there is no statute specifically authorizing the sheriff to operate a jail commissary or to accept compensation or fees from inmates for providing commissary services. T.C.A. § 5-8-101, which lists the sources of county revenue, and T.C.A. § 8-21-901, which lists fees a sheriff may collect, do not include such payment or compensation.

Pursuant to T.C.A. § 8-21-101, the sheriff is not allowed to demand or receive fees or other compensation for any service further than is expressly provided by law. If any officer demands or receives any other or higher fees than are prescribed by law, such officer is liable to the party aggrieved in the penalty of fifty dollars ($50.00), to be recovered before any judge of the court of general sessions, and the officer also commits a Class C misdemeanor.  T.C.A. § 8-21-103.

In the Court of Appeals of Tennessee Edwin Graybeal, Jr., Sheriff, Washington County, Et Al. v. Tennessee Department of Human Services, No. M2007-02320-COA-R3-CV, local officials appealed to the Chancery Court the decision by the Secretary of State that the Department of Human Services has a statutory priority under Tenn. Code Ann. § 71-4-501 et seq. to operate the inmate commissary at the local detention facility with blind vendors. The Chancery Court’s findings were affirmed that the inmate commissary is subject to the statutory priority.