By Christopher Zoukis
Until an upswell of protest from families of inmates and criminal justice reform groups intervened, the state of New York was about to implement a new pilot program which would have blocked inmates in three state prisons from being able to receive books sent by family or friends or donated by charities.
In March 2017, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) issued directive 4911A, which would have created a two-year trial for an Inmate Food and Sundry Package Program, which would provide the only source for packages to inmates. The plan would allow a limited number of vendors to apply for approval by the state to sell pre-selected items in top product categories, which would be listed in catalogs.
According to directive 4911A, the move was meant to create a “more controlled inmate package program” to increase security and prevent contraband from entering the prions. Delayed from the originally planned Aug. 1, 2017 start date, the program was re-scheduled to take effect at the start of the new year. Three state prisons – Greene, a medium-security facility in the upper Hudson county of the same name; Green Haven, a maximum-security facility in Dutchess County; and Taconic, a medium-security women’s facility in Westchester County – were the first scheduled to fall under the new system. But the success of pilot program would likely lead to the restrictions being expanded to all the state’s 54 prisons.
When the first vendor product and price lists became public, strongly negative reactions quickly followed, and nowhere were reactions stronger or more negative for books. Charitable groups like Books Through Bars, who has sent 100,000 free books to inmates over two decades, objected that they would be unable to continue their charitable work in New York.
Families of inmates also objected to the program for its expense and limited selection. Instead of being able to mail their incarcerated family members hand-picked items bought at affordable prices, they would be limited to selecting from state-approved vendors’ narrow, premium-priced offerings. Some critics noted, for example, that the first five selected book vendors, out of a planned maximum of eight, offered only 77 titles, including 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 books of puzzles, 14 religious texts, 11 how-to books, five romance novels, a thesaurus and a dictionary. One prison-reform group was reportedly thinking about bringing a lawsuit to sue to challenge the new program. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, a sometimes political rival to fellow Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo, went on the record that his city “would never” try to block access to books by city jail inmates.
Whatever the final straw may have been, on Jan. 12, Cuomo apparently had had enough. He tweeted out a message that he would direct DOCCS to rescind the new program restricting mailed packages to state inmates. Calling the program that had been in effect less than two weeks “flawed,” Cuomo said concerns from families of inmates need to be addressed, and vowed to “redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.” For the time being anyway, the program has been suspended while the Governor and DOCCS consider how they plan to address that problem.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.