If you talk to anyone who’s done time, you know that one of their saving graces while locked up is books. Inmates can use books to escape their reality and kill dull stretches on time during their bids. However, the state of New York is seriously limiting the selection of books that inmates can receive. So far, at three prisons (Greene, Green Haven and Taconic correctional facilities), families and friends are only able to send inmates books that fall under the categories of romance novels, the Bible and other religious texts, drawing or coloring books, puzzle books, how-to books, a dictionary, and a thesaurus. Limits are also imposed on inmates receiving fresh fruits and vegetables, clothing, toiletry items and cosmetics.
The restrictions are part of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) program called the Secure Vendor Program. According to Buzzfeed:
The state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision launched a program in December 2017 that limited care package purchases by families and loved ones of inmates to a list of approved vendors selected by the department.
Directive 4911A, which is currently being piloted at Greene, Green Haven, and Taconic correctional facilities, states that family members and loved ones of prisoners in these facilities must now purchase items for inmates from six vendors listed on the state’s department of corrections website. The department claims that the program offers “a variety of food and articles at competitive pricing for inmates, their families and friends; while maintaining security, and providing an efficient operation.”
The directive states that the inmates at the three facilities “may only receive packages directly from an approved vendor with the exception of a wedding ring, release clothing, and non-electric musical instruments from their family.”
NYC Books Through Bars, a charity that has sent inmates books in over 40 states over the past 21 years, has been highly critical of the reading restrictions. “No books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents. No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human,” the organization said in a statement. “No texts that help provide skills essential to finding and maintaining work after release from prison. No books about health, about history, about almost anything inside or outside the prison walls. This draconian restriction closes off so much of the world to thousands of people.”
Author Molly Crabapple also had some words about the program on Twitter. “They offer 5 junk sex novels, 14 bibles & religious books, 24 drawing/coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 guitar/chess/how-to books, 1 dictionary, 1 thesaurus. No other books can be sent in,” she tweeted. “I cannot stress how vital, life-changing, indeed life-saving, books are for incarcerated people, especially for those in solitary.”
Crabapple also tweeted, “According to the new rules, family members will no longer be allowed to send prisoners fresh fruits and vegetables. The approved vendors only provide unhealthy processed food. Also banned- warm clothes like hoodies and scarves.”
Unless the program’s naysayers push through and are able to make some changes, it will only spread. It is the plan of the NY department of corrections to expand the program statewide by the end of the year. In contrast to the critiques of the program, NYDOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey rebutted, “Over the last two years, the Department worked to develop a secure vendor package program to increase facility safety by reducing the introduction of contraband. Secure vendor programs are used by nearly 30 jurisdictions in the country and are cited as a national best practice. Furthermore, it is patently false to suggest that individuals in DOCCS custody will not have access to books, magazines, or other literature.”