Prison commissaries sell basic consumer goods like deodorant and snacks, and also optional clothing items like socks and work boots. A reader’s letter brought a dilemma to our attention: the regular warranty exchange procedures don’t work when you’re in prison and can’t receive outside mail.
As human rights issues for prisoners go, thwarted warranty exchanges aren’t the most urgent problems, but they’re part of what we do here at Consumerist. It’s pretty frustrating for reader AnnaMarie and her brother, who is in prison and left without a pair of work boots because of a gap between Timberland’s warranty policies and the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Inmates can own three pairs of shoes: sneakers, shower shoes, and one pair of work boots. Those boots have to come from the commissary, and Timberland has the contract to provide them. AnnaMarie notes that most men wear the boots year-round, because Timberland boots are pretty great. Her brother’s boots are less great, though, because some of the stitching came apart after he wore them for only six months. They have a lifetime warranty, though: surely Timberland will repair or replace them, right?
Nope. Her brother says that he wrote to the company several times without receiving a response. AnnaMarie called them up and learned the official policy.
“Yes, that’s right,” she wrote to Consumerist. “They will mail these boots to you as a private consumer, but if you are an inmate, they will only mail the boots to someone other than the original consumer. The customer service representative that I spoke with told me that the inmate could either have a family member bring the boots back to the prisoner in the prison, or the inmate would just have to wait until they were released to get their boots back.”
This policy is completely useless to inmates and their families. Prison regulations prohibit them from receiving anything more substantial than sheets of paper through the mail, which rules out boxes of boots. Even if AnnaMarie didn’t live on the other side of the country, in-person visitors aren’t allowed to bring gifts. Keeping boots at a relative’s house is unhelpful when you have a few years or decades left, or are serving a life sentence. Besides, people who aren’t in prison can buy and wear any darn kind of footwear they want.
We contacted Timberland for clarification, and they sent us this statement:

Timberland no longer ships product directly to correctional facilities when a consumer is seeking replacement for a defective product. Our new policy, which we have clearly communicated to all the correctional facilities with whom we work, is that consumers will need to provide an address outside the correctional facility for the shipment. Alternately, consumers can contact the retailer where they purchased the product (in this case, the prison commissary) for replacement.
Timberland manufactures products using the highest quality materials and craftsmanship, and we extend a manufacturing and material defect warranties on all our products. When we receive a product complaint, our Quality Control Inspectors carefully examine the product. If the inspection process reveals a defect, the defective product is discarded and replaced with the same or a comparable product.
To return a product for evaluation under our product warranty, consumer can ship the shoes along with their name, shoe size, reason for return, and shipping address outside the correctional facility to: Timberland Consumer Returns, 50 Service Lane, Danville, Kentucky 40422

We asked AnnaMarie whether the prison commissary actually lets inmates exchange boots. Nope, she says: the commissary tells them to mail their boots in, and Timberland says that the company can’t mail anything back directly.
“If a boot is defective and the Timberland Company has a warranty for such defects, AND they have a contract with a captive audience, why are they changing the terms of the warranty in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to use?” AnnaMarie asks. We don’t know.
We tried contacting the Department of Corrections and people at the facility where AnnaMarie’s brother is serving his sentence about this, and didn’t get any responses. Even if we had, in government agencies, the person who knows the most about the situation or who actually made the policy usually isn’t authorized to talk to the media anyway.
Administering warranty exchanges might be needlessly complex for the commissary, and we get that. It doesn’t sound like anyone designed this policy to intentionally boost sales or to leave inmates bootless, but it leaves AnnaMarie’s brother with no option but to buy a new pair, and that’s frustrating.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.