“Outside/In” is a monthly column by Claire Tak about what it’s like to have a loved one in prison from a sister’s unique perspective. From sending commissary money to visiting prison for the first time, Claire shares tips, advice and of course, stories.
Early on in my brother Isaac’s incarceration, he requested a care package.
“Doesn’t the prison provide you with everything you need?” I asked.
He scoffed: “There’s no way I can make the state-issued bar of soap last for a month. You know how tiny that thing is? It’s like the soap they give you at a hotel.”
And it wasn’t just soap that Isaac needed.
When my brother entered the California prison system, at Pleasant Valley State, he was provided with the absolute bare minimum: a roll of toilet paper, a tiny toothbrush and a small bottle of shampoo. But these items didn’t last very long. “For winter, I need more clothing to stay warm, and I don’t want to lounge around in state boxers,” he said.
The prison provided three sparse meals daily, but they were also not enough to fill him up, so he needed to purchase other food. He constantly asked me for money he could use at the canteen, which is the prison’s version of an overpriced corner store. Eventually, I was sending him $150 each month.
Pretty soon I better understood why he needed a lot more than the prison would provide. It was up to families and friends outside to provide the rest by ordering quarterly care packages through designated companies that sell pre-approved items such as clothing, toiletries, pre-packaged meals and junk food.
In prison, care packages are not nicely decorated boxes containing heartfelt items. They come straight from a vendor in a cardboard box. The items are pre-approved through vendor partnerships with the state department of corrections.
Initial orders were expensive
In the very first order, my brother asked for big-ticket purchases: a $250 TV; a $50 radio and $20 earbuds; $50 hair clippers. He also wanted extra clothing, including white shirts for $10 each, new sneakers that cost $75 and $20 shorts. Being housed in the desert of Central California meant enduring brutal summers and chilly winters. He needed to have a variety of things to wear.
The radio, which with its small speaker and channel finder dials was reminiscent of the 1980s. The earbuds were cheap and required batteries. AA and D batteries to power the radio and hair clippers cost $5 to $20. The high cost of the TV particularly annoyed me, but if I were locked up, I would want a TV too.
I found all the items to be expensive, especially for what they were, but I purchased them all. This order cost nearly $500. Fortunately, future orders never cost as much as this first one.
When all was said and done, each care package order — filled with snacks, toiletries and clothing — cost anywhere from $300 to $500. I’ve sent him one every quarter for nearly five years, an amount that is close to $10,000
Isaac received all of the items at once a few weeks after I placed the order.
Sodium, nitrates and sugar, oh my
Ordering care packages for Isaac, I noticed right away that the vendors did not provide any healthy food options. The choices were ready-made soups, ramen, sausages and meat snacks, including pre-cooked bacon, hot links and beef jerky. Sugary options included chocolate, cookies and soda.
I worried about my brother getting diabetes because it runs in the family. Our father suffers from the chronic illness, and is now mostly bound to a wheelchair.
But there wasn’t much I could do. Pre-packaged foods were a part of prison life, and I didn’t want Isaac to go hungry. Reading stories about food published by Prison Journalism Project and listening to Ear Hustle, the podcast on prison life produced at San Quentin State Prison, I learned that meals from the chow hall were typically not enough to feel satiated. Incarcerated people often talk about their hunger and supplementing their meals with snacks from care packages and the canteen.
I also heard stories of incarcerated people who don’t have anyone on the outside to send them any money or care packages. A lot of people have to get a job, like working in the cafeteria or kitchen, even though the pay is next to nothing (in California, wages range from 8 cents to $1 an hour). Those who don’t, turn to hustling — cutting hair, drawing portraits and any other kind of service or skill they can leverage.
Isaac was lucky because he had a family who could offer financial support. As unhealthy as the prepackaged foods were, he wouldn’t go hungry. I encouraged him to drink more water, exercise and try not to eat so many Snickers in one sitting.
May I take your order?
So, how does ordering work?
People in prison are only allowed to receive one package per quarter and orders need to be placed before the deadline. The prison provides hard copies of the care package catalogs, in which products are accompanied by a corresponding item number.
In our case, Isaac would look through the hard copy of a catalog and write down what he needed. I then went to the vendor’s website and ordered the items.
At first, Isaac mailed me letters with the item numbers and the cut-off date for ordering. Eventually we decided it would be faster if he just called me.
The drawback was that we had to be quick because the calls were limited to 15 minutes. If there was anyone waiting to use the phone, he had to try me again later instead of calling me right back.
The exchange always felt clandestine, like we were communicating in top-secret code to acquire his candy bars, soap and beef jerky.
Getting familiar with vendor websites
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has contracts with several care package vendors: Access Securepak, Union Supply Group and Walkenhorst’s. Each requires you to search for the incarcerated individual’s ID number.
(There are more options for California prisons. Here is the full vendor list. Other states are nearly identical, you can check the website for the prison or the state corrections department for more information.)
I’ve found vendors’ offerings to be similar in cost. My preferred vendor is Walkenhorst’s because their customer service reps are friendly, empathetic and helpful.
My advice is to choose a vendor that offers: transparent delivery tracking; a phone number for customer service; and a website that is easy to navigate. A good vendor will notify you when the package has been shipped and delivered, instead of sending a generic “thank you for ordering” email.
Care packages cannot alleviate all of the discomforts of incarceration. But Isaac’s experience has taught me that care packages are a requirement to live a decent life behind bars. For my brother, it allows him to maintain his personal hygiene, have an extra layer to wear in the colder months, and open up a snack or make a quick meal when his stomach is grumbling.
Have a question or comment about care packages? Subscribe to my Substack, Stories About My Brother, or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org, attention Claire at Outside/In.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.