New York state's prison system restricted the types of books people can send to inmates at three prisons to a handful of romance novels, the Bible and other religious texts, drawing or coloring books, puzzle books, how-to books, a dictionary, and a thesaurus.
The system has also banned families from sending fresh fruit and vegetables to inmates at the facilities.
The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision launched a program in December 2017 that limited care package purchases by families and loved ones of inmates to a list of approved vendors selected by the department.
Directive 4911A, which is currently being piloted at Greene, Green Haven, and Taconic correctional facilities, states that family members and loved ones of prisoners in these facilities must now purchase items for inmates from six vendors listed on the state's department of corrections website. The department claims that the program offers “a variety of food and articles at competitive pricing for inmates, their families and friends; while maintaining security, and providing an efficient operation.”
The directive states that the inmates at the three facilities “may only receive packages directly from an approved vendor with the exception of a wedding ring, release clothing, and non-electric musical instruments from their family.”
NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer collective that has sent books to inmates in prison in over 40 states for the past 21 years, bashed the limited reading options provided by the vendors selected by the state for the program.
“No books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents. No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human,” the statement said. “No texts that help provide skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release from prison. No books about health, about history, about almost anything inside or outside the prison walls. This draconian restriction closes off so much of the world to thousands of people.”
The selection from one of the approved vendors only includes the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, Running a Restaurant for Dummies, Screenwriting for Dummies, and romance novels like A Beautiful Satan and A Beautiful Satan 2: Natasha's Wrath. Another approved vendor's books were limited to the Bible, various magazines (GQ, People, and Car and Driver), several coloring books, and a couple books on how to play the guitar and harmonica.
The state's department of corrections said it hopes to expand the program to facilities statewide later this year. Amy Peterson, a volunteer with NYC Books Through Bars, told BuzzFeed News, “We’re hoping they’ll revisit this directive without us having to bring up a legal case against DOCCS.”
Scott Carpenter, Central Region Vice President for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, told BuzzFeed News that the suggestion that the directive is a restriction on reading materials for inmates is "very misleading to say the least," pointing to two additional DOCCS directives.
"I would recommend that you obtain directive 4470 “General Library Services” from NYSDOCCS and you will see that DOCCS makes every effort to provide reading materials to all inmates incarcerated in a NYS correctional facility," Carpenter said. "Also, in directive 4422 “Inmate Correspondence Program” there are allowances made so that inmates can obtain magazine and other periodical subscriptions at their own expense."
Keri Blakinger, a reporter with the Houston Chronicle, who served two years in a New York prison for drug charges, told BuzzFeed News that reading kept her out of trouble and from going back to drug use while incarcerated.
“Books were my main source of hope in prison,” Blakinger said.
“The purpose of these new rules is to force families of prisoners to buy overpriced, shoddy crap from a few politically connected vendors,” artist and author Molly Crabapple tweeted Monday.
Caroline Hsu, staff attorney for New York Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners' Rights Project, said the limits on fresh food in particular are concerning to her. “People who have certain dietary needs because of medical conditions have to rely on fresh fruit and veggies [from packages] for health,” Hsu said.
Hsu said that Legal Aid was looking into a number of challenges to the new rules. “Nothing is off the table,” she said.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, NYDOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey said it's "patently false" to suggest inmates won't have access to literature.
"Over the last two years, the Department worked to develop a secure vendor package program to increase facility safety by reducing the introduction of contraband," Mailey said. "Secure vendor programs are used by nearly 30 jurisdictions in the country and are cited as a national best practice."
UPDATE: On Friday, New York's governor Andrew Cuomo said he directed DOCCS to "rescind" the program.
Mailey acknowledged that they had received Cuomo's directive in an updated statement put out by DOCCS:
“As part of a multi-faceted plan to address the flow of contraband, the Department recently launched a pilot secure vendor program in three of its facilities, similar to ones already in place in nearly 30 other states. However, concerns have been raised by families of inmates regarding the availability and price of products under this program, concerns we do not take lightly. To that end, the Governor has directed the Department to suspend this pilot program until these concerns are addressed. In the meantime, we will redouble our efforts on the other parts of our multi-faceted plan to eliminate contraband and increase safety in our prison system.”