A great story from the New York Times about a man who has done time and has now found a way to use that experience helping other prisoners and their families.
A couple of weeks ago, a street team from Sendapackage.com was standing on a sidewalk near Columbus Circle in Manhattan talking with a dozen women about to board a charter bus that would take them upstate to visit their relatives in prison. It was 10 p.m. and many of the women huddled in the darkness were toting sleepy children; most were also burdened with plastic bags of Pop Tarts, pretzels, cookies and potato chips — junk food unavailable to men behind bars.
The team from Sendapackage, which could be thought of as prison’s version of Amazon.com, was handing out glossy catalogs offering New York’s 50,000 inmates hundreds of items for purchase and delivery: soft drinks, cigarettes, canned ravioli, cotton hoodies and — perhaps most popular of all — music on cassette tape, the only format that corrections regulations will allow.
“We’ve got same-day shipping and a 10 percent discount on first-time orders,” the team’s coordinator, Zerimar Ramirez (or Mr. Z), was telling the group. As some of the women flipped with interest through the product line, a video crew stood ready if any of them cared to go on camera and provide a testimonial.
Though it might surprise many who have no experience with prison, sending packages to loved ones doing time can be, as thousands of local families know, a Kafkaesque process. Beyond the hassle of going to several stores to assemble a package, and then having to take it to the post office or UPS, is navigating a welter of rules governing what is allowable.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision publishes a list, currently more than 20 pages long, of who can send what, and how, and what is permitted and what is not. Food cannot contain poppy seeds; emery boards must be “nonmetallic”; boxer shorts and briefs must be of a solid color only.
“I thought there had to be a better way,” said Chris Barrett, Sendapackage’s founder, who seems to have discovered that way on the Internet. The items that Mr. Barrett’s service sells online (as well as through its catalog) have all been chosen in advance to adhere to the extensive directives put in place for gifts by the corrections department. His selection is comprehensive and diverse enough that the company bills itself as “New York’s inmate superstore.”
In a city that appears more and more to be colonized by corporate-funded start-ups, Sendapackage, which is two years old, has an exceptionally personal creation myth. The idea came to Mr. Barrett in 2008, not long after his younger brother, Robert Maffei, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for a murder in Brooklyn. When he was 19, Mr. Maffei killed a man after firing a pistol from a moving car. After he was put away, Mr. Barrett, who had himself served six years on a mob-related gun charge, tried to send him some deodorant and a package of salami at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, in Fallsburg.