The Economics inside Female Prisons

Remember how important care packages were at overnight camp? Well, the same holds true for female prisons. Yup, Oreos, shampoo and conditioner, Oil of Olay products, art supplies can all be ordered… if you have someone on the outside who wants to buy them for you. Do you ever wonder what life is like on the inside of female prisons? We got a glimpse from Orange is the New Black, but this first hand account of a capitalistic society fascinated us. Sorting through the catalog for new products is a favorite pastime in the clink. Finding “penpals” who will buy you stuff is an art!

From Broadly:

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.


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.

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