Inside the Strange and Beautiful Box Economy of Women's Prison
Inside a female prison is a consumerist utopia that runs on care boxes. The demand is high, the supply is tight, and the lubricant for this glorious capitalist machine is penpal boyfriends.
Illustration by Brandon Bird
I spent roughly six months navigating a county jail (for a felony I'll tell you about some other time), and when the anxiety-driven thought loop of "this can't be happening to me" finally broke, I started to notice my mouth. It never felt clean. The likely culprit was the shitty toothpaste in my Fish Kit. The Fish Kit is a toiletries kit for new inmates known as "new fish" in prison parlance. The kit includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, deodorant, and a single, pitiful golf pencil, along with starchy clothes and rubber sandals that I still have nightmares about. In jail, everyone dressed the same, bathed at the same, ate at the same time. "Shopping" meant the standard jail snacks of pork rinds, ramen noodles, and instant coffee available on commissary.
When I was moved to a prison, it was like being thrown into a rainbow-riot of glorious consumer goods: sweatpants, sweatshirts, t-shirts, sneakers, tank tops, beanies, mittens, flip flops, and quality bras. Women were sharing hot chocolate (with marshmallows!) and eating brand-name sugary-mouth scraping cereal. Donuts! Popcorn! Wheat Thins! Oreos!
Where was this salty, crunchy, sticky bounty coming from?
Boxes. Pre-approved vendor boxes paid for by inmates, families, or boyfriends, delivered every quarter. Inside prison was a mini capitalist utopia operating with full force. From this economy sprung a cottage industry of locker rentals: for the women who had multiple boxes coming in, other inmates would charge to rent out space in their lockers. Since an inmate can only receive one box a quarter, some women will let inmates use their name to get extra boxes, for a price. Boxes are also used to barter for drugs, court love interests inside, and show your prison girlfriend you care.
Some of the women I met could run a corporation with the combination smarts, hustle, and mental agility with which they ran their fiefdoms of Fritos.
Vendors send their catalogs to both inmates inside as well as those outside who will be doing the ordering (more on that in a minute). The day new catalogs come out is a celebration, a frenzy of excitement over new items, despair at discontinued favorites, intense menu planning and list-making. The lists! Many hours are spent creating, editing and finalizing lists, which are then sent to those ordering.
Personally, my lists were short and basic, with a few specials thrown in. Here's what a typical box would consist of for me:
Shampoo/conditioner: The water in prison is so hard you can actually feel your hair follicles breaking. Women would develop that halo of fluff around their hairline which was a result of hair breakage.
Skin care: You can get skin care products from anywhere on the quality spectrum. I didn't spend too much on boxes so I didn't feel bad splurging on my skin. I ordered Olay night cream, day cream with SPF and Neutrogena face sunscreen. I also had Olay cream face wash, St. Ives Apricot face scrub and Neutrogena toner. Any body lotion worked for me, and mom would throw in foot cream because she knew I was wearing boots all day every day.
Toothbrush/toothpaste: Just like skin care, quality was across the board for toothbrushes and toothpaste. No electric brushed though. One fellow inmate got an electric toothbrush when a church donated supplies for the holidays one year and it was immediately confiscated because they assumed she was using it as a vibrator.
Clothes: Sweats! When not in our work "oranges," everyone wears sweats. Various shades of grey and white are allowed. Same goes for t-shirts and tank tops. You can buy bras and panties but I realized that the Hanes bras and standard prison panties they issued worked just fine. No underwire though! Who knows what nefarious things inmates could do with that.
Electronics: I had a radio and a CD player. Prison is loud. Really loud. There is always someone talking, usually yelling. Earbuds were my savior. I had the kind that go in your inner ear, other people had the big ones that go over the ear. Either way, most of us could be seen walking around with our music on at all times.
Food: In the beginning, being able to order food other than chow hall food was miraculous. I would stock up on cookies, chips, pad thai, sausage, and dried garlic. Eventually the novelty wears off so I stuck with the basics: instant coffee, flavored creamer, noodles, oatmeal, granola bars, and peanut butter. I would throw in some special items like enchilada sauce or candy bars if we were celebrating a birthday or having a holiday party. My mom would get me a box of See's Candy every year for my birthday.
Other thing you can get in boxes:
TVs/tablets: You can get your own TV in prison. Now, while I think that too much TV, especially in a place where you are being forced into self-contemplation, isn't the best idea, having TVs to keep people calm and quiet are a good thing. There are flat screens and non-flat screens. There are big and small. They look like flat computer monitors, with clear cases. I'm assuming they're clear because otherwise everyone would hide their deadly rugs/shivs/eyelash curlers in them. Right before I was released, they started allowing tablets.
Guitars: OK. Musical instruments are good things but not in prison. Even one person playing their guitar could be heard in every corner of the facility, so it was not welcomed by all. I have to admit, it even led me and some of my cohorts to plan an instrument's demise (the plan was never carried out). Nevertheless, guitars, picks, straps, and tuners are available.
Typewriters: I never actually saw one, but they are in the catalogues. There's even a section in the inmate code of regulations, called the Title 15, about what a "manuscript" is: "written, typed, or printed articles of fiction and nonfiction, poems, essays, gags, plays, skits, paintings, sketches, drawings or musical compositions." I suppose there is something romantic about composing a play on a typewriter in the clink.
Books/Magazines/Games: Books, in general, can be sent in from major vendors such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Magazines can also come in the mail. However, the catalogues so source a limited selection. Mostly books by popular authors (i.e. James Patterson and Janet Evanovich), guides to prison cooking and working out. You can order single magazines too. Decks of cards, including Uno, Scrabble and checkers/chess are available.
Art Supplies: Arts/crafts are a creative outlet without all the racket (see Guitars above). Regular catalogues sell paper, colored pencils, cards, and envelopes. But there are special craft catalogues with nothing but craft supplies. You simply sign up to get your "hobby craft" and off you go. The catalog is huge. I went simple and ordered regular paper, decorative paper, paint, safety-scissors, glue sticks and Sharpies. You can also get yarn, leather, feathers, beads, glitter etc. You can get one of these boxes per quarter in addition to your regular box.
Religious items: Like hobby craft, there is a separate religious catalog. Not much to choose from but includes jewelry from most faiths, prayer books, oils, and reading materials
The majority of people have their boxes ordered by family or close friends. My mom ordered my box for all quarters but one, when a group of friends got together and got me one. Boxes can be ordered online, but, as my mom learned, usually something comes up where you need to speak with a real person: an item is out of stock, the website doesn't recognizing an item number, it can't find your recipient, or even the facility the inmate is in. So once a quarter, she would take my list and call the vendor and go through each item. Some women order their own, using money from their inmate accounts. Doing it this way seems to be a long, drawn-out process that involves multiple steps and almost always ends in an error. No one is happy to get dried shrimp instead of trail mix.
There is another way women get boxes: through penpals. There are dozens of female inmate penpal sites. Sites like 'Captive Angels' and 'Paper Dolls' are set up like dating sites with women writing descriptions of themselves like:
I am not a 1 in a million girl, I am a once in a lifetime woman. I commit whole heartedly. When I decide to merge my energy, love, and experiences with someone, I am intent in it remaining forever. Are you the one who can make me smile? I can't wait to hear from you.
Born: 1980 Capricorn
Conviction: Endangerment, neglect, abuse, causing bodily harm and or death
Sentence = Entered: 2007 Year of Release: 2017
Born & Raised: Yorktown, VA
The woman in the next cell to mine juggled multiple male penpals. If one didn't keep her entertained, she simply stopped writing and picked another. Most of the letters were so amusing it became a daily ritual for her to read aloud the most bizarre she received that day. My personal favorite was the guy who wrote a letter about how he was from space, complete with a picture of him painted green from head to toe with a blue cape, pointy ears, and magical space backdrop. Or the dude wearing the red velvet three-piece suit and 70s glasses, leaning against his Chrysler, promising her a future on his ranch in Montana.
Keeping up correspondence with these guys was not just a way to alleviate boredom, but also a fine financial hustle. Penpals will send stamps, envelopes and paper to ensure that the person they're writing has no excuse to stop writing. They will also put money into the inmates account, even the account of friends. And of course, the best penpals are the ones who order their lady a box (or more) every quarter. Sugar daddies like that are the ultimate score and kept around as long as possible, usually by writing the smuttiest smut. Mostly, smut letters are written as a group, with everyone pitching in juicy tidbits. Men probably find it arousing, we found it hysterically funny.
Sometimes the box boyfriends would come for a visit which was always an amusing event to eavesdrop on.
Regardless of how they're acquired, boxes in prison represent more than just goods. They represent social status, purchasing power, and stability. Boxes are bonds of prison relationships and nonverbal agreements between penpals. Boxes are a step towards the comfort of home and reminders of the love of family and friends. They are a bit of normalcy in a surreal environment.