NY governor puts brakes on program to restrict inmate packages
Reform advocates said the program, in which friends and families of inmates had to send items through private vendors, was too restrictive
By Rick Karlin
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
NEW YORK — Following an outcry from prison-reform advocates and a flurry of news reports, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday said he was suspending an initiative that sharply limited the content of care packages that inmates can receive in state prisons.
Reform advocates said the program, in which friends and families of inmates had to send items through private vendors, was too restrictive and would cut off contact between prisoners and their families.
The policy, which was already in place at three prisons and slated to be phased in statewide, was touted as a way to combat contraband because all of the items would have been pre-selected and generally sent in tamper-proof packages from the vendors, which serve prisons nationwide.
Cuomo announced the reversal Friday afternoon on Twitter, saying, “I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipment of books & care packages to inmates. Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.”
A few minutes later Thomas Mailey, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, sent an email saying the program was suspended.
“As part of a multi-faceted plan to address the flow of contraband, the Department recently launched a pilot secure vendor program in three of its facilities, similar to ones already in place in nearly 30 other states. However, concerns have been raised by families of inmates regarding the availability and price of products under this program, concerns we do not take lightly. To that end, the Governor has directed the Department to suspend this pilot program until these concerns are addressed,” Mailey said in the email.
He added, “In the meantime, we will redouble our efforts on the other parts of our multi-faceted plan to eliminate contraband and increase safety in our prison system.”
Advocates said they were gratified that the Cuomo administration was listening to their concerns and paying attention to several stories about the initiative including one online at timesunion.com.
They also cautioned that they were unsure if a modified version of the plan lay ahead.
“It obviously demonstrates that there were fundamental flaws in what was being proposed,” said Jack Beck, who runs the Prisoner Visiting project at the Correctional Association of New York, a group that advocates for better prison conditions. “Without the pressure (from families and media stories) I don’t think this would have happened.”
He remained wary, explaining that his group wants to know the initiative is buried once and for all.
Advocates said inserting a third-party vendor made for a less-direct connection between inmates and families, which can help convicts get through their sentences and adapt to a crime-free life once they are released.
“Packages that a mother or daughter’s hands have never touched are sterile and less meaningful,” Caroline Hsu, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said in an email. “When you are in prison, a cookie is never just a cookie, it is a lifeline if it comes with love.”
“Forcing people in prison and their families to buy from pre-selected vendors results in price-gouging, creates anger and fosters hopelessness in already volatile prisons,” Tina Luongo, The Legal Aid Society’s attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice, added in an email.
The policy had been in effect at three prisons: Green Haven, Greene and Taconic.
DOCCS had contracted with six vendors that serve the prison industry: E-Ford Commissary; Access Securepak; Union Supply; JL Marcus; Walkenhorst; and Music by Mail.
The last one, Music by Mail, was added after activists including members of Books Through Bars volunteer group had complained that the plan would sharply limit the kind of reading material that inmates could get. Music by Mail has a substantial inventory of books that can be ordered and sent to inmates.
Books Through Bars donates books to prisoners who request them. The group said they were "cautiously" welcoming news of the suspension.
The vendors also carried food items ranging from cookies and candies to Spam and instant coffee. Advocates noted that a fair number of inmates rely on care packages for their meals instead of consuming prison fare which is light on items like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Still in place are the measures that DOCCS has instituted to crack down on contraband.
Those moves include the use of more sensitive metal detectors, increased numbers of dogs that can sniff out drugs and piloting the use of body cameras.
The agency is also hiring outside investigators and banning products with canned lids that can be fashioned into weapons.
Additionally, DOCCS recently required prison employees to bring items such as their lunches in clear see-through plastic bags.
The added scrutiny follows the June 2015 escape of two inmates from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
Convicted killers David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped through an inactive steam pipe underneath the prison. The escape triggered a massive search and created a national spectacle.
Matt was eventually shot and killed while Sweat was shot, injured and returned to prison. The escape, authorities said, was aided by tools that had been hidden in pieces of frozen meat brought into the prison as well as tools smuggled by a correction officer.
©2018 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)