Yesterday, Garcia learned that he will soon lose the ability to send his father books. This fall, New York correctional institutions plan to eliminate package delivery for inmates, with the exception of items ordered from a short list of approved prison venders. Six venders have been approved so far, among them Walkenhorst and J.L. Marcus, companies that sell items such as tennis shoes and electronics through mail-order catalogues; two more will be added soon. (The policy has already taken effect in a pilot program at three New York prisons: Greene, Green Haven, and Taconic.) The package ban applies not only to clothes, fresh food, and household items but also to reading materials, which has prompted critics to accuse the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or doccs, of censorship. Several observers pointed out that the initial five approved venders offered fewer than a hundred books for sale, two dozen of which are coloring books. “Why would they eliminate books?” Garcia asked. “It’s bureaucracy clashing with humanity.”
When I contacted the New York prison system for a comment, a doccs spokesperson, Tom Mailey, confirmed that, under the new policy, prisoners will lose access to new and used book shipments from unapproved mail catalogues and online retailers, as well as family members. He referred me to the acting commissioner of doccs, Anthony J. Annucci, who said in a phone interview that inmates “will continue to have the ability to buy books—from the venders.” doccs recently approved a sixth vender, Music by Mail, which offers tens of thousands of titles. (The New York Public Library system, by comparison, has tens of millions.) Under Directive No. 4911A, Annucci added, prisoners will still have access to prison libraries and an interlibrary-loan program. Mailey suggested that friends and family members donate to prison libraries, by way of nonprofits such as Books Through Bars, instead of sending books to individual prisoners. In a statement, the New York chapter of Books Through Bars condemned the policy; one volunteer threatened a lawsuit if the directive is not rescinded.
I asked Michael Shane Hale, an inmate at Sing Sing serving fifty years to life for a murder conviction, how the new policy will affect him. “It’s already difficult to get books as it is,” he told me over the phone. “It’s almost like they’re barring books without actually having to bar them.” Hale is enrolled in a prison education program, and for a recent Chinese class he was expected to buy a textbook for sixty dollars. (A good wage in a New York prison is about twenty-five cents an hour.) Some of his professors require eight sources in the research papers they assign. Inmates do not have access to the Internet.
Hale learned about the new directive several months ago, in a memo circulated to prisoners. “In the memo they posted, they said it wouldn’t affect books,” he told me. He said that the package restrictions were later expanded. The prison library, which he described as crowded and understocked, can’t replace his current access to books, he said. “When you go to the general library, you’re basically competing for books with a thousand other people.”
Last March, when doccs announced its intention to switch over to private venders, it cited a range of reasons: “to maximize the availability of food and sundry packages,” “to have vendors offer a variety of items at competitive pricing,” and to maintain “high security” and “an efficient operation.” But Annucci told me that the decision was first and foremost about contraband—particularly, the smuggling of illegal drugs, such as heroin cut with fentanyl and synthetic marijuana. “It’s not just about getting high. Inmates are dying,” Annucci said.
Bianca Tylek, a prison advocate who founded the Corrections Accountability Project, questioned the effectiveness of restricting mail in the fight against illegal drugs. “Improving hiring, training, and oversight for staff would do far more to reduce the introduction of contraband than limiting prisoner packages,” she told me.
Annucci acknowledged that, at times, prison staff have helped smuggle contraband into prisons. He told me, “The majority of staff are honest; they do a good job. But some number of a workforce of twenty-nine thousand will compromise themselves. And I want to send the strongest possible message of deterrence, to catch them, hold them fully accountable, and criminally prosecute them when warranted.” Tom Mailey, the doccs spokesperson, said that he does not keep statistics on contraband found in books, but described a sixty-four-per-cent increase in package-room contraband between 2013 and 2017.
The restrictions on prisoners’ book purchases could nonetheless leave doccs vulnerable to lawsuits. “If they actually persist in this policy, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they are sued and the policy is found to be unconstitutional,” Paul Wright, who founded Prison Legal News during a seventeen-year stint in prison, told me. Prisons can legally contract with private venders, but they must uphold the First Amendment right to free speech. “Books are protected by the Constitution, while tennis shoes aren’t,” Wright said. Annucci seemed unconcerned. “If I were afraid of getting sued, then I’m in the wrong line of work, because people sue me all the time,” he said. “This is not at all an infringement on anyone’s First Amendment rights.”
Many prison systems have reversed similar policies in response to public outcry, Wright noted—just yesterday, a ban in New Jersey prisons on the book “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, was lifted after the A.C.L.U. of New Jersey wrote to the state’s corrections commissioner, Gary M. Lanigan. “This is a pilot program,” Annucci said. “We are doing it so we can learn, and we can see if any adjustments are necessary.” But, according to Wright, states often have powerful financial incentives, in the form of staff reductions or “kickbacks,” to partner with prison contractors. doccs said that it does not receive commissions from venders, although this directive does reduce the labor required to process packages.
Robert Rose, a Sing Sing inmate who is serving twenty-five years to life for murder, said that a family member recently sent him “Anger,” by the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, purchased on Amazon. The Web site allows Rose’s family to order books for him and send him the bill, which he can then pay for through his prison disbursement account. In response to questions I sent him through Bianca Tylek, he told me, “I usually take a few hours a day to read.” Rose is allowed to keep a maximum of twenty-five books in his cell, and likes to sit on his bed and read when his unit is quiet, either early in the morning or late at night. Books help reconnect him to society, he said. He just finished “Design Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life,” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, a 2016 book that is supposed to prepare readers for making decisions in their education and career. Rose had a different goal. “I was using it to prepare for release,” he said.