Getting snack-filled care packages to inmates presents unique hurdles to prisons

Getting a high volume of packages to buyers safely and efficiently isn’t just a problem for Amazon to solve — it’s one that’s bedeviled the Nevada Department of Corrections.

The Board of Examiners — which includes the governor — voted Tuesday to authorize 18 staffers from the Department of Corrections to contract with an outside company for the rest of the year to help deliver care packages to their rightful incarcerated owners. The state will eventually bring on more employees at the prison store, eliminating the need for officers to moonlight as delivery personnel within prison walls.

Nevada’s system of getting packages to prisoners hasn’t always worked smoothly, corrections officials told lawmakers this spring. Prisons had been using a system where inmates walked up to a retail store window and picked up items from one of two staffers on duty.

But that involved inmates leaving their housing units and standing in line for long periods of time, often in the elements, and alongside rivals who wanted to steal their new stuff.

“We discontinued it because of the number of incidents we had on the yard,” then-NDOC Director James Dzurenda testified in April. “Knowledge of certain inmates receiving commissary may create issues. With inmates that feel they had to pay another inmate for a debt unauthorized by NDOC — they do illegal activities that we try to stop.”

So prison officials reverted to a system like Amazon’s — direct-to-door delivery. Officers and  non-officer staff employees contract with Access SecurePak, a company whose website allows loved ones to order inmates snacks ranging from Twizzlers and Twinkies to a Taco Bell-branded double-decker taco meal.

Inmates are limited to one food package and one clothing package each quarter because accumulating too much personal property can create a security risk or even a fire hazard, staff said. Access SecurePak drops off the goods outside the prison, and contracted officers who stay after their regular shift is over deliver the packages within the housing unit for $5 apiece.

“It has proven to be a safer and more secure delivery process,” Dzurenda said. 

In coming months, new retail shopkeepers whose positions were approved by the Legislature will take over the care package deliveries. But if history is a guide, filling those positions could be a challenge — NDOC said it struggles to recruit and retain staff to work at inmate stores because the retail job market is competitive, especially at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, north of Las Vegas.

“If individuals can find a job for comparable pay in town, they are less inclined to accept a job with more mileage and security risks,” said Venus Fajota, chief of purchasing and inmate services, told lawmakers.

The whole system is not immune to criticism, especially because the inmate commissary has a 64 percent profit margin on goods sold, according to documents provided to lawmakers. But NDOC officials said the margins on supplies sold within prison will go back to the Inmate Welfare Account, which provides services that help indigent inmates with costs such as postage and medical co-pays.

The fund also provides television, security during visitation, programming and reintegration services. 

“The fund allows for reasonable accommodations of the inmates while enhancing their programming as they prepare to re-enter society,” prison spokesman Scott Kelley said in a statement. “NDOC provides for the fundamental needs of the inmates while discretionary commissary purchases provides for many of the enhanced services for the inmates.” 

NDOC officials said they eventually plan to use the Inmate Welfare Account to pay for computing devices for inmates that would simplify their education, correspondence, banking and other tasks. That, however, is on hold because the Legislature did not approve funding to install security equipment and software to ensure the devices are used properly, the agency said.