New York Suspends Program That Would Have Limited Prisoners’ Access to Books, Food From Outside 

Donated books for Arkansas Department of Correction
libraries. Photo: AP Images.

New York state has suspended a pilot program that would have
severely limited prisoners’ ability to receive care packages
from the outside—restricting everything from fresh food to
t-shirts to books.

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New Program Would Restrict New York
Prisoners’ Access to All But the Dumbest Books

New York State has launched a new “program” that would
severely limit one of the few earthly…

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ThinkProgress
reported earlier
on Directive 4911A, an experiment in three
New York prisons supposedly meant to “enhance
the safety and security of correctional facilities through a
more controlled inmate package program
.” Those inside could
only receive items bought from six approved vendors—nothing
else from family members or nonprofits like Books Through Bars,
which criticized the policy. And what could they receive? Via
ThinkProgress:

The first five vendors combined offered just five romance
novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21
puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary, and one
thesaurus. Last week, the state appeared to add a sixth
vendor, but the full catalog doesn’t appear to be available
to people in prison in the state, and the governor’s office
did not respond to questions about the addition.

Prisons have libraries
that do

important work
making a broad array of reading materials
available, but the program would have cut out another avenue
for the incarcerated to get their hands on specific books. And
erecting barriers between prisoners and books seems downright
cruel, especially when “one 2013 study found that people who
participate in correctional education programs while
incarcerated had a
43 percent lower odds
recidivating than those who did not,”
a New York Times piece
pointed out.
 

The restrictions weren’t simply on books, either, but also on
items like food and clothing. And once you looked at the price
tags,
as the New York Times did
, the program looked
suspiciously like a way to milk the prison system for cash:

But a look at the catalogs published online showed inflated
prices on popular items. One vendor was selling a package of
Oreo cookies for more than $5, compared to around $3 at a
local discount store or mass retailer. Another vendor was
selling a single plain T-shirt for $10, even though many
stores sell entire bulk packages for less, said Caroline Hsu,
a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. Vendors may also
charge shipping and handling fees.

In the face of public outcry, ThinkProgress
reported
that Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the
suspension of the program.

This isn’t an isolated incident, either. The Department of
Corrections and Community Supervision told Think Progress in
their initial statement that, “Secure vendor programs are used
by nearly 30 jurisdictions in the country and are cited as a
national best practice.” And even as the New York State story
was unfolding, the New York Times
also reported
that New Jersey had lifted its ban on The
New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of
Colorblindness
—that is, after the ACLU got involved.

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