Revenue over Rehabilitation

This op-ed was originally written on January 10, 2018. Governor Cuomo instructed the Department of Corrections to rescind the directive on January 12, 2018.

New York places increasingly stringent restrictions on packages for the incarcerated.

Despite evidence that education sharply decreases likelihood of recidivism, New York State intends to place strict limits on reading materials available to inmates in its prisons. Directive 4911A, introduced by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DoCCS) last month, places new restrictions not only on the books that inmates can receive, but further limits the types and amounts of food, clothing, and other gifts that are permissible, and restricts purchasing options to a short list of pre-approved, for-profit vendors.

Typically, such policies are justified by a focus on the safety and security of inmates and staff, and aim to curb the ability of inmates to obtain contraband items. This new directive, however, seeks to control not only items that pose no direct threat, but those that have been shown to improve the well-being of incarcerated individuals during and after their time behind bars.

The Secure Vendor Program established by the directive is currently being piloted in three facilities, Greene, Taconic, and Green Haven Correctional Facilities, and the DoCCS plans to roll the program out to the entire state by fall 2018. The program allows inmates to receive packages from a list of only six approved vendors, all of which are already established providers of packages to correctional facilities.

There are only 77 books available to inmates through the approved list of vendors, which includes 24 coloring books, 21 puzzle books, and 14 religious texts. The Books Through Bars collective, which sends free books to inmates with a focus on New York prisons, issued a statement condemning the move, particularly the lack of books that could provide resources for many of the challenges faced by inmates including addiction, parenting, learning English, and employment.

According to DoCCS, in 2016 approximately 59% of New York State’s inmate population of nearly 60,000 had received a high school degree or equivalent, compared to 87% of the general population of the US. Studies have demonstrated that prisoners who are provided with education while incarcerated are 43% less likely to recidivate than those who do not. Engaging in educational activities while in prison has also been shown to improve the likelihood of finding employment upon release by up to 24%. Education and employment are both key factors in allowing the formerly incarcerated to reintegrate into society, increasing public safety and community well-being.

Supporters of this program argue that the pre-approved packages available through these vendors are more convenient than care packages assembled by loved ones, however this is not the reality for many households.

A representative of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society stated when speaking with the Marshall Project that in addition to the limited availability of items, they are often more expensive through vendors than through at local stores. Though DoCCS does not publish data regarding individual or household income of its inmates, it has been estimated that nationally, up to 80% of incarcerated individuals are low-income or indigent. For these individuals, many of whom do not have access to credit cards or the internet, using these services can be an insurmountable task.

Other items that improve the quality of life for inmates that were once inexpensive and easy to acquire, including simple food items and warm clothes, will now require additional cost and effort to obtain for many hoping to send care packages. Though the state is concerned that items packaged at home or through other services may contain contraband, opponents of the directive argue that the current protocol for inspection of packages by correctional officers is sufficient to manage this issue.

The revenue generated from these sales will now also be directed solely to the vendors approved by the state, to the detriment of small, local businesses. The validity of the stated motives behind the creation of such a limited program is called further into question given the resultant costs imparted on the incarcerated and their families, and the benefits provided to the vendors.

The vision of the DoCCS is to “[e]nhance public safety by having incarcerated persons return home under supportive supervision less likely to revert to criminal behavior.” The implementation of a program that so blatantly restricts the ability of incarcerated individuals to obtain knowledge calls into question the department’s level of commitment to that vision in practice. This program clearly seeks to introduce further barriers to rehabilitation and successful reentry for those who need these resources the most.