Earlier this week, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced inmates at three of the state’s prisons would no longer be able to receive donated gifts of books and fresh food from the outside.
The Department of Corrections claimed that the decision was made in an effort to curb contraband from entering the prison system. But from a distance, the move looked an awful lot like more of the same punitive price gouging and no-bid contracts that have plagued prisoners and their families for years.
A Department of Corrections spokesman basically admitted as such (emphasis mine):
“It is possible that with feedback from incarcerated individuals and their families some adjustment in prices may occur,” a spokesman for the Department said.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the DOCCS program “flawed,” while maintaining that prison contraband is a problem:
Cuomo has been nominally progressive on prison reform of late. At his State of the State address earlier this month, the governor announced his intention to eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenses—a system that often has the effect of unduly punishing people because they are poor. Credit where credit is due: this would represent a significant step forward for criminal justice reform in the state. Still, this is just the latest example of Cuomo’s administration issuing a draconian measure before having to walk it back. In last year’s state budget, he attempted to cut back family visiting hours at the state’s 17 maximum security prisons—a move that would unduly punish prisoners and their families, while saving the state little money. Cuomo eventually walked back the decision.
New York has a long way to go toward criminal justice reform. Mayor Bill De Blasio has been pushing to close Rikers Island, the notorious Bronx jail where Kalief Browder was imprisoned. Rikers remains open. On December 30, as New York experienced a bitter cold snap, the heating system in some of the jail’s housing units failed. Temperatures inside the units fell below 60 degrees, and 60 inmates had to be evacuated to another facility.
More broadly, corrections officials have long treated prisoners’ desire to stay connected to the outside world as a crime. Prisons charge inmates astronomical prices to make phone calls to the outside; a 2010 ACLU report found that a half-hour phone call could cost up to $30. This comes as video phone kiosks are increasingly replacing inmates’ access to in-person visits from loved ones.
Prison commissaries are another example of vulture capitalists preying on a literally captive market. Little-known companies like JPay and the Keefe Group control large swaths of the prison inmate market, and family members who want to transfer money into an inmate’s commissary account must pay steep fees to do so.
The Department of Corrections’ reversal of its original decision was a small but significant victories for prisoners and people who care about their livelihoods. Remember, this controversy started because corrections officials tried to stop inmates from receiving books and fruit from loved ones.
Books Through Bars is an organization that collects donated books and brings them to prisons, with a focus on incarcerated youth (disclosure: I’ve donated to this organization).