Looking Up: New York’s misguided prisoner package program

Looking Up: New York’s misguided prisoner package program

In my last column, I wrote about the power of certain kinds of books to make us more human, give us perspective, and, for me, at least, keep some hope in dark times.

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision apparently doesn’t agree. It has been running a pilot program at three facilities that would restrict packages sent to inmates to purchases sent directly from a short list of approved vendors. Although Gov. Cuomo ordered the program to be rescinded last Friday, it may well come back in another form when fewer people are looking. And the fact that it was floated at all tells us a lot about how much the humanity of incarcerated people is considered expendable.

The first list of vendors released would have only given inmates access to fewer than 100 books. Music by Mail, a recent addition, as The New Yorker noted, at least sells more like 10,000. But that’s still 0.5 percent the number of titles available on Amazon. (And as of last week, at least, only about a 10th of that total inventory appears available to the facilities that are part of New York’s pilot program.)

The package program is cruel in other respects as well—for example, it will no longer allow fresh food as a supplement to prison diets. Now, in theory, if the system were providing appropriate health care, one would think it would be thrilled by anything that would mitigate diet-related illness. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there.

DOCCS of course, claims the package move is about cracking down on contraband, especially dangerous illicit drugs. That would at least be somewhat on topic regarding packages from individuals (though, to be clear, I do not think that would make it an appropriate trade off to ban those packages), but it seems like quite a stretch to apply it to purchases sent directly from a retailer.

More importantly, of course, it’s self-defeating and inhumane (and unconstitutional, when it comes to the reading material). In other words, perfectly reflective of how we treat people who are incarcerated in our society. As both compassionate and self-interested citizens, we should be going out of our way to make diverse reading material available to people undergoing incarceration.

Low literacy is a huge factor in ending up incarcerated. Note: this does not mean “improving education” would by itself reduce either crime or incarceration if we didn’t at the same time fix the massive imbalances in access to the means to make a living and the systemic racism in the law enforcement and court systems. Nonetheless, improving literacy still removes one barrier to future opportunity and improves life significantly. Practice helps with improving reading skills, and people on the inside at least have the time to devote to that—if we are allowed to give them books that are of interest.

Access to a range of titles matters to everyone, and the list of books currently available through the pilot program is quite slim. While it does contain items on the some of the most common topics requested from Books Through Bars, there are some gaps, and a severely limited selection overall. For example, there’s no “Puerto Rican history” (there are 11 history titles total). Books about trades like plumbing and HVAC are not among the study guides. A couple of books each on things like Wicca (or Christianity for that matter) will not provide an appropriate variety or perspective for those complex and controversial topics. And so forth.

The books are displayed with titles only—no authors, no product descriptions, and only in a few cases cover images, making it hard to discern what they are. And, of course, most of the titles are available for a 10th the cost if you were able to shop freely for used copies.

This aspect of the package directive really ought to bother those who like to argue that we should support individual charitable acts, unhampered by government. (Remember “1,000 points of light”?) People who send inmates packages, especially containing reading material and healthy food, are embodying that ideal. Their generosity keeps people on the inside healthier in body and mind, connected with the outside world, occupied (thus likely reducing violence), and better prepared for release and return to our communities.

The correctional system should be falling over themselves to thank these family members, friends, and concerned citizens, who are likely both saving them money overall (even if they have spend more time checking for contraband) and, much more importantly, furthering their ostensible mission of rehabilitation. Instead, the system would like to punish these volunteers and drastically reduce their effectiveness by limiting their freedoms of what to purchase and where to purchase it from.

I wish I could say I was surprised. As we’ve seen many a time, this country likes to invoke the idea of a free market, but is remarkably consistent about only applying it when it benefits those in power.

It’s in proposals like these that the true values of our “correctional” system are laid bare.

Image via Gov. Cuomo’s Flickr account.

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