Across the statewide prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has logged approximately 289,000 gift packages so far this year, an average of more than 25,000 per month. Inmates are allowed to receive packages quarterly, each weighing a maximum of 30 pounds and containing items ranging from name-brand deodorants to ramen noodles. Inmates can also receive specialty purchases, such as televisions and CD players, and, in some cases, California inmates can even receive Xbox 360 video games.
For many years, inmates could receive packages directly from family members and friends. Then, in 2004, despite outcry from prisoner advocates, CDCR passed new regulations that require all inmate packages to be ordered through a limited list of approved vendors. The idea, said Lt. Anthony Carter of CD- CR's Standardized Procedures Unit, was to stem the flow of illegal items and create a unified system for all the state's 32 institutions. Currently, people on the outside can order items for an inmate online or put money in an account so an inmate can place his own orders. So far, the system has worked pretty well, Carter says.
“The security measures have greatly reduced or limited contraband from that avenue and also streamlined staff in the department,” he says. Packages “are quicker to process, even if staff has to search them as they come in. It's not like it was back in the day, when they were dumping half of it in the garbage because it wasn't allowed.”
At the program's high point, 18 vendors served the prison system. After the recession, that number dropped to eight. To alleviate inmate concerns that limiting the vendors would drive up the cost of items, CDCR placed a 10-percent cap on how much a seller can mark up an item above market value. The other major inmate concern, the selection—“the catalogs don't have anything that the guys really use,” as one fiancée of an inmate told the (Riverside) Press-Enterprise in 2004—no longer appears to be a problem, either.
Walkenhorst's, a Mormon-run business in Napa, Calif., is among the most popular vendors and offers CDCR inmates a 198-page catalog (27mb PDF). The selection includes more than 50 watches, 74 shampoos and eight different LCD televisions, most featuring clear-plastic bodies manufactured by Walkenhorst's sister company, Hiteker. Walkenhorst's even offers a custom CD service, where the company will burn up to 80 minutes of songs to a single disc (charged at a persong rate; 12 tracks would cost $26). The music catalog— another 196-page book (15mb pdf)—spans the gamut; an inmate could theoretically order a CD mix of 2Pac, Britain's Got Talent's Susan Boyle and stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg. Walkenhorst's also offers 12 different “Hip Hop Bundles” of five albums each for $50.
There are limits, however, to how much property an inmate can keep, Carter notes, such as one pair of shoes, one TV, analog-only watches and a maximum of three appliances.
Some inmates have a larger selection than others. Due to overcrowding, California currently houses 9,300 inmates in four private prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Lt. Ralph Jackson, spokesperson for CDCR's Out-of-State Correctional Facilities division, says that as part of its contract, CCA is allowed to determine its own prisoner-property rules, subject to CDCR approval. The most notable difference is that, unlike prisoners who remain in California, CCA inmates are allowed to purchase Xbox 360 and Playstation 2 game consoles through Walkenhorst's.
“Our policies allow inmates to purchase only games that are rated E for ‘everyone' or T for ‘teen,'” CCA spokesperson Steve Owen writes in an email to CityBeat. “Games for mature audiences are not allowed. We work closely with our vendor, which has systems in place to ensure the appropriateness of the games. The staff at our facilities further screen incoming orders to ensure they meet our standards.”
However, CCA's position doesn't agree with Walkenhorst's practice. The vendor's catalog offers inmates almost 400 video games, more than a quarter of which are classified as “Mature.” The games Grand Theft Auto, Hitman Trilogy and Scarface are each on the list and include committing crime as a central goal of game play. Walkenhorst's website screens products based on the rules of the facility; all three games were available for order for California inmates in CCA's out-of-state facilities, and CityBeat has independently confirmed that inmates have received “Mature”-rated games.
Contacted for this story, the Entertainment Software Association declined to comment and instead provided links to fact sheets that assert there is no connection between video games and violent crime. The association won a landmark ruling this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a California law that would've banned stores from selling or renting violent video games to anyone younger than 18.
State Sen. Leland Yee, the Democratic legislator from San Francisco who sponsored the law, does not have a position on inmate access to video games, since he is focused primarily on protecting children, says his spokesperson Adam Keigwin. Of more concern to Yee is how private contractors are enforcing a different set of rules.
“If we are shipping our inmates to other states, they should be following the same regulations,” Keigwin says, noting that Yee's policy also covers labor and discrimination standards. “We can't pick and choose which regulations are acceptable for other states not to follow.”
The greater disparity in prisoner packages may be between state inmates and inmates in San Diego County jails. County inmates cannot receive packages or order from catalogs, though people on the outside can pay booksellers to send books and magazines directly to inmates. The Sheriff's Department also maintains a limited online store that allows people to send inmates a choice of seven gift packs. The options include the “Hygiene / Stationary” gift pack, a “Sweet and Sour Candy” gift pack and a “Mexican Dinner” gift pack. For Christmas, the county commissary offers a “Mini Holiday Fancy Box” of six See's chocolates for $7.19.
CDCR does not take a commission from vendor sales, but the county benefits from its program. According to minutes from the sheriff's Inmate Welfare Committee, e-commerce (including gift packs and phone cards) generates usually between $15,000 and $25,000 per month in transaction fees and usually around $100,000 in net sales—all profit is then channeled back into inmate services.
Clarification: As a reader pointed out, the California inmate package rules are fairly complex and we imprecisely grouped "specialty purchases" such as TVs and radio, which do not have a weight limit, with the quarterly packages that are limited to 30 pounds and typically contain hygiene and food products. Further complicating the issue, as we noted in the story with the example of Xbox 360 consoles, is that the rules differ for out-of-state inmates.