ALBANY — Until very recently, care packages for inmates in New York State prisons could contain a hodgepodge of items to let them know someone on the outside was thinking of them: a fresh apple, a hoodie, a dog-eared paperback.
As of this month, all those things are no longer allowed.
New York’s prison system is testing a policy that would bar family members and friends from mailing their incarcerated loved ones a used book, or bringing fresh fruit and vegetables on a visit. They would instead be limited to the catalogs of a handful of state-approved vendors, through whom all packages for inmates would need to be ordered.
The state corrections department, which introduced the policy as a pilot program in three prisons on Jan. 2, says it will help officers crack down on recent increases in package-room contraband. It plans to implement the policy statewide by the fall.
But critics say the move would enrich a few private companies, and would limit prisoners to the catalogs’ paltry, price-inflated roster of TV dinners, potato chips and Scrabble dictionaries. A coalition of opponents, from the Legal Aid Society to PEN America to the New York-based National Supermarket Association, has rallied to denounce the policy and petition officials to reconsider. And Representative Joseph Crowley, the House Democratic caucus chairman from New York, urged that the restriction on books be reconsidered, citing their importance to inmates’ successful re-entry into society.
“The department’s response has been in every way to use security as a tool — and I see it as a weapon — to retaliate against the population” of inmates and their families, said Jack Beck, director of the Prison Visiting Project at the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York.
The amount of contraband recovered in prisons increased 74 percent from 2013 to 2017, with the amount that entered through the package room increasing 64 percent, according to Anthony J. Annucci, the corrections department’s acting commissioner.
Mr. Annucci said the department’s priority is inmate safety: As people have found more creative ways to circumvent traditional screening techniques, inmates’ fatal overdoses have spiked, he said, adding that 27 other states use so-called “secure vendors.”
Mr. Annucci said prices for products would be kept down by competition among vendors, six of whom have been announced so far, with at least two more to come. The department has no financial arrangement with the vendors, and would not take a share of their profits, Mr. Annucci said.
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.
Mr. Beck said the marked-up prices could force financially strained families to make difficult choices.
“People are going to have to decide, do I go on a visit, or do I buy this more expensive stuff? They might be giving up one or the other because of the cost of this,” he said.
The department has been considering a secure vendor program for years and announced its plans for the pilot program at Greene, Green Haven and Taconic Correctional Facilities in early December. But the policy attracted significant backlash this week after several advocacy groups, including NYC Books Through Bars, which donates books to incarcerated people, said the policy would severely limit inmates’ access to reading material.
“No books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents,” the letter said. “No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human.”
After the letter was sent, the department posted the sixth vendor’s catalog, which included an expanded book list.
Also on Jan. 3, Mr. Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address, which included proposed reforms to New York’s criminal justice system. Officials said Mr. Cuomo was not involved in developing the corrections department’s policy and would evaluate the results of the pilot program.
Mr. Annucci strenuously denied that inmates’ reading options would be curtailed. Groups like NYC Books Through Bars could still donate books to prisons’ general libraries, he said. Prisoners also have access to public libraries. And if an inmate wanted to buy a book that was not listed on a vendor’s catalog, he or she could still order it.
“Nothing changes,” Mr. Annucci said. “An inmate can get any book.”
Still, Melissa Marturano, a NYC Books Through Bars volunteer, said donations to general libraries would not allow the organization to fulfill specific requests from specific inmates. And prison libraries are understaffed and poorly maintained, she said.
Even though other states have secure vendor programs, those programs do not typically apply to books or magazines, said Paul Wright, director of the advocacy group Human Rights Defense Center.
Other advocates said their larger concern was with not the details of the policy but its spirit.
New York has long had one of the most liberal policies in the country regarding prison packages and visits, said Elizabeth Gaynes, president of the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that provides services to incarcerated people and their families.
But while other states might have more restrictive policies, that precedent should not influence decision-making in New York, Ms. Gaynes said.
“It’s not that it puts New York at the back of the line,” she said. “It’s like, why would we want to be?”