Appealing to a Captive Audience : Advertising: Inmates might make just cents a day, but their cumulative buying power has drawn notice. One catalogue is geared exclusively for those behind bars.
Jan Warren recently quit smok ing, a decision she made not so much to preserve her health, but to save money. Where she shops, cigarettes cost at least $1.14 a pack--about a third of her $3.88 weekly salary.
Every two weeks, Warren is allowed to shop at the general store in what’s been her home the last eight-plus years--the maximum-security prison north of New York City she shares with more than 700 other women. Warren is serving a 15-year sentence for possession and sale of cocaine.
Warren’s purchases are mostly relegated to the prison’s general store, or commissary, which offers cigarettes, toiletries and other basic items. But at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where Warren works as a clerk, prisoners are also permitted to purchase some goods from the outside, as they are at many institutions.
For prisoners who want to shop beyond their walls, the primary options are catalogues and advertisements in magazines and other publications. Most mainstream ads, though, hawk goods inmates can’t afford or aren’t allowed to have.
The idea of convicts as consumers raises questions that can’t easily be answered and often make marketers wary: How much money do prisoners actually have to spend? How safe is it to do business with criminals? What kind of goods would they, or should they, be allowed to have?
Some businesses see only promise in targeting such an isolated group.
“Prisoners are starved for the opportunity to buy things,” said Richard D’Antoni, advertising director of Prison Life, a bimonthly magazine with news, opinion and fiction written by current and former prisoners.
“We living out here with all this constant bombardment of electronic and print messages don’t realize the degree to which we are exposed,” said D’Antoni, a former prisoner who said he served more than two years for a federal drug conspiracy conviction. “Once you’re removed from this environment . . . you suffer almost a withdrawal.”
D’Antoni said he likes to stress rehabilitation in seeking advertisers for the magazine, focusing on correspondence courses, literature and job training. But Prison Life nonetheless has a wide array of ads to meet inmates’ needs, practical and otherwise: legal services, compact discs, sporting goods, pen pals, body-building supplements, lingerie, learn-to-juggle kits, “Women and Weaponry” calendars and X-rated audiotapes. Its only big name-brand ad has been for Newport cigarettes.
D’Antoni admitted that attracting advertising for a magazine with regular features such as “Cellmate of the Month” can be a hard sell.
“There’s a negative assumption that has to be overcome, being that prisoners are . . . segregated from society and I think in some regards today you consider them to be almost dead,” he said.
D’Antoni said the magazine was started after its founder, Joe Strahl, saw how much money prisoners spent in their institutions’ commissaries and realized the potential for a thriving market.
As a group, prisoners do have buying power. Last year, inmates were paid a total of nearly $165 million for their work in prisons nationwide, according to the Criminal Justice Institute, a South Salem, N.Y.-based agency of the Justice Department. Many get money from family and friends to supplement their salaries. And they have few, if any, expenses.
Federal prison commissaries sold $84.5 million worth of goods in the fiscal year ended September, 1994, said Thomas Metzger, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. An additional $1.4 million was poured into vending machines in federal institutions.
Considering that federal prisoners accounted for only about 8% of the nearly 1.1 million inmates the Criminal Justice Institute counted in all U.S. prisons, jails and correctional programs last year, there may be hundreds of millions of prisoner dollars available for spending.
How that money can be spent is the perhaps most difficult issue to nail down. All federal prisons and many state institutions funnel inmate salaries into accounts for use only in their commissaries. Federal prisoners can get special permission to make outside purchases with money from their commissary accounts, but those occasions are very rare, said Helen Butler, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
However, D’Antoni of Prison Life said he was able to purchase books, publications and running shoes from the outside while incarcerated. He said he had friends who ordered items from a Tiffany & Co. catalogue.
On the state and local levels, purchasing rules vary. State prisons in Texas have strict rules similar to the federal system, said Larry Todd, a spokesman for the state’s criminal justice department.
“It’s a matter of security,” Todd said. “Some of the inmates can turn a soda straw into a weapon. They’re very creative.”
Smaller states have more liberal rules on prisoners’ purchases because they have fewer discipline problems, said Patrick Branson, a spokesman for North Dakota’s state corrections department, which allows inmates to purchase such items as Walkmen, stereos, televisions and jeans.
Another security consideration is how inmates might go about making their purchases. Several years ago a convict admitted using stolen credit card numbers to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars of purchases--which he said included Rolex watches, snakeskin boots and diamond-studded false teeth--from his Florida prison cell.
As a safeguard, merchants today have access to systems that can track the address on a credit card and turn up possible past fraud from that location, said Nancy Elder, a spokeswoman for MasterCard International in New York.
Some cataloguers exclude towns where prisons are located from their mailing lists to prevent credit card fraud problems with inmates, said Jack Baer, vice president of Muldoon & Baer Inc., a New York-based catalogue consultant.
“It becomes very difficult to threaten someone after the fraud when they’re already in jail,” Baer said.
The problems prisoners have in dealing with big cataloguers provided the inspiration for N.Y. Express, a catalogue concern based in Rehoboth Beach, Del., started by Richard Sabia, a former food service administrator at the Bedford Hills prison.
The N.Y. Express catalogue now only goes to New York state prisons, but the company hopes to expand.
The catalogue includes candy, kitchen utensils, jewelry, cards, silk flowers and toys. The $6.95 fuzzy “I Love You” bear has been the biggest seller since the company’s inception in late August, Sabia said.
The company also makes sure it doesn’t include anything in the catalogue that New York state prisoners can’t have, he said. For example, it offers photo frames without glass because inmates are forbidden to own anything containing glass.
Prisoners, inmate Warren said, have to accept not being able to make purchases from big cataloguers and department stores. They must satisfy themselves with making their own items or settling for cheaper, lower-quality goods.
Flipping through the N.Y. Express catalogue, she laughed. “This, compared to a Spiegel catalogue--come on, let’s face it, it’s not that attractive. . . . [But] I can’t imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have these.”