Beginning in January 2018, people at Greene, Green Haven and Taconic Correctional Facilities in NY will no longer be able to receive packages directly from family members or friends. All packages must be ordered through an approved vendor. Its currently a pilot project but in September 2018, this policy will apply to ALL 54 prisons in New York State affecting over 50,000 currently incarcerated people.
The policy also hurts the poor, who have less access to credit cards and the internet because the policy also prohibits the use of cash or food stamps. So either you have to deposit money into the resident’s account and they purchase items through the prison commissary (with its highly-inflated prices and which only sells processed, packaged goods) or else your loved one is stuck with whatever is available in the prison. The other limitations are
1) No fresh fruits and vegetables or canned foods can be sent.
2) Clothing such as hoodies and scarves are prohibited.
3) All books must be newly purchased. No used books allowed. (More on the books below)
4) Prices are controlled by the few approved vendors and basic necessities will be much more expensive.
I get it. No politician was ever elected by promising to give more rights to the incarcerated or by even mentioning in a campaign speech that they feel the incarcerated should be treated humanely. And placing these limits makes it easier for jails to administer the packages that come into the facility. And I am sure someone’s pockets are getting lined to get to be one of the five-approved vendors for the whole State inmate population. But the fact is that a healthier, more educated better-fed prison population is easier to manage and less costly to house than ones that are forced to live off of garbage food and have no access to new reading material. One of the worst features of the measure is the serious limits it places on reading material to which the incarcerated will have access. The current catalog of reading material from all applicable vendors is as follows:
1. All the available fiction consists of five (5) crime/romance novels. – Yup, no Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo, Angelou, Tolstoy, Baldwin, or even King or Grisham. Yet more on the books below
2. Fourteen (14) religious texts of various faiths
3. Twenty-four (24) drawing or coloring books
4. Twenty-one (21) puzzle books
5. Eleven (11) how-to books focusing on guitar, chess, and other areas, but none of which deal with self-help, parenting, fighting addiction or depression
6. One dictionary with no Spanish-English version or any other language available
7. One thesaurus.
That’s it. It gets even worse when you look more closely at the books that are available. All are street crime novels published by a company called DC Bookdivas which touts itself as looking to expand “the urban library.” Hmm . . wonder what they mean by that. And why do they think its a good idea to expand the urban library with this trash. Better yet why would NYS DOCS think this is the only appropriate fiction for its population? Let’s look at the blurbs from the five novels available to these men and women (Note: Exclamation points are in the original text): “Beautiful Satan” (“Newly married Angel Rising has it all, beauty, a handsome husband, a professional career, an estate in Suburban Maryland, with more designer clothes and toys then one could imagine. With a life of luxury comes just one problem. A husband who said I do when he really meant I won’t. Jovan just can’t seem to shake the streets or all the women in it! Hurt, confused and wanting revenge, Angel vows there will be no mistress, no more!”)and “Beautiful Satan II” (“Louis and Clark continue chasing down leads in an attempt to apprehend DC’s most allusive serial killer. But Clark allows frustration to get the better of him, leading him to some underhanded dealings to get results, but the outcome isn’t what Clark expected. The brilliant Tony Woo is still scrutinizing and analyzing the case evidence, and he remains firm in his belief that only a man is capable of committing this level of violence. The CSI-Tech, Malaysia Tomay [OMG]has some twisted issues of her own that are finally revealed, and Jovan realizes too late that he got way more than he’d bargained for in dealing with a woman of her caliber”) both by RJ Champ; “Drunk in Love” (Cece felt like she had awakened from a bad dream after losing her father to the system, and now she is faced with a brand new dilemma. Being torn between two men has just taken on a new meaning not to mention there are more of her father’s secrets being revealed, causing a strain on her previous family relationships. Feeling like she is trapped in a corner, she makes a choice and flocks to the one that she wants by her side: Chuck. With no knowledge of Cece’s father and his diabolical plan to stop his heart from beating, Chuck continues making moves, hustling from the bottom to the top. Love is secondary, and that chase to get that paper gets more real day in and day out”) and “Killer’z Ambition” (“After ten years of imprisonment, convicted killer, Carmelo Glover was vindicated on an appeal and released back into the streets of Washington, DC. Now Carmelo wants revenge for all on lock and doing time because of a snitch. Seriously dedicated to his cause Carmelo blitzes through a violent war of snakes, and snitches, punishing them for sweet moments of revenge, and…A Killer’z Ambition!”). by Nathan Welch; “The Hustler’s Daughter” by Pinky Dior (“When Don Carter flies to Santiago de Cuba, his plans are to rendezvous with his new connect, Vicente. He never expected to meet the beautiful and vestal virgin Maria – Vicente’s daughter. It was love at first sight as Don and Maria unite romantically”); “Dynasty” by Dutch (That’s it , just Dutch)(“The Bells and Simmons are family. The Bells, a crime family in New York, have the cocaine market on lock. The Simmons, hailing from the South, reign supreme in heroin. Talks of joining forces are suddenly stalled when family patriarch Guy Simmons is gunned down. Suspicions fly. Jealousy breeds. The body count rises. Guy Simmons has created a legacy he wants to pass on to his two sons, Kevin and Tyquan. However, his womanizing ways have spilled over and jeopardizes all he’s worked for. The mothers of his sons hate each other. Like mother, like son. Guy’s shooting has ignited a new brotherly beef; a love beef that could have deadly repercussions, especially when you have a family where the enemy may lie within.”)
While these blurbs may be funny to read, its disheartening and disgusting to think that this is the only literature made available under the new program. What message does this send to the incarcerated and their families? What is NYS DOCS thinking of its residents?
My friend Dr. Baz Dreisinger, who founded John Jay’s Prison-College Pipeline which enrolls men incarcerated in NYS prison into John Jay College for free and which starts their education while they are still in prison, has proven that education in prison reduces recidivism and prison violence. No serious person can dispute that educating people while they are in prison (where over 40% do not have a high school diploma) is beneficial to society. Incarcerated people are going to coming back into society. If we so seriously limit what they can read while they are in jail, how can we expect them to become participating members of our society when they are out?
An organization called NYC Books Through Bars has written a strong letter to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo asking him to end the pilot program. The organization is a volunteer collective that has been sending free books to people in prisons across the United States for more than twenty-one years. The letter points out that it “receives hundreds of letters every week from incarcerated people requesting books. These requests run the gamut from dictionaries to novels to cultural histories to medical texts. Many requests come from people in isolated housing units who do not have access to prison libraries. We have even received requests from prison employees struggling to stock libraries for the general population.” All that assistance, information and guidance will now go to other States as the program will not be allowed to send books in NY.
This program is ill-advised, draconian and not driven to solve any problem being faced in NYS prison that merits this response. The average length of stay in a NYS prison is six years. Treating those incarcerated with respect and helping them better themselves and get educated is not only sound public policy, its a moral imperative.
**UPDATE** Jan- 16 -2018 – NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo Last week announced putting this program on hold “for more investigation” after the general negative outcry reached his ears **
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