Advocates: New policy restricts NY inmates' access to books
By KAREN MATTHEWS
Jan. 10, 2018
NEW YORK (AP) — People who want to send a copy of jailhouse classics like "The Shawshank Redemption" to a loved in a New York prison may soon be out of luck.
A new policy, rolled out last month to help prevent drugs from being smuggled into prisons, will bar inmates from getting packages containing books, or almost anything else, in the mail unless they come from a short list of approved online commissaries.
The plan, now in place at just three of the state's prisons but eventually headed for all 54, has drawn an outraged response from several advocacy groups, who say reading can be a key part of an inmate's rehabilitation.
"The State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision needs to promote moral and responsible prison policies that uphold inmates' access to information and safeguard the right to read," said Summer Lopez, a senior director at PEN America, a press freedom group that runs a national prison writing program.
Prisoner advocacy groups assailed the quality and variety of books available for purchase through the state's six commissary contractors.
Daniel Schaffer, a volunteer with NYC Books Through Bars, which sends free books to inmates across the United States, said there are only a few hundred titles. "Given how many millions of books are out there, that's a pretty limited selection of books to choose from," he said.
One of the vendors, Efordcomissary, lists 10 books for sale on its site, including the Bible, the Quran, "Screenwriting for Dummies" and "Running a Restaurant for Dummies." Another, JL Marcus, includes books about chess, solitaire and crossword puzzles. A larger selection was offered by the vendor Music by Mail, which had a catalog that includes thrillers, Christian fiction, gay and lesbian fiction, the plays of Shakespeare and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
Inmates also will still have access to books through prison libraries, which are stocked with a variety of books, magazines and other literature, said Department of Corrections spokesman Thomas Mailey. He assailed the idea that the new policy would block inmates from reading as "patently false."
Anthony Annucci, the department's acting commissioner, said prison officials are fighting a surge in drugs being smuggled into the system. "The basis of this program is that we need to have packages come from an outside source that has been vetted by us to address our security concerns," he said.
The officials said Books Through Bars and other groups will still be able to send books indirectly to prisoners by donating them to prison libraries.
Additionally, inmates can request books from public libraries through inter-library loan, though the books will be placed in the prison library and not given directly to the prisoner who requested them.
Caroline Hsu, staff attorney for the Prisoners Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, said access to prison libraries is not unfettered, especially for inmates in solitary confinement.
Besides, she said, "People should be able to read the books they want to read."
Books Through Bars sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and Annucci asking for the policy to be reconsidered.
In addition to books, the new policy will prevent inmates from getting care packages of food from home, which Hsu said will also hurt rehabilitation.
"People need to hang on to little things like the cookies that you remember from childhood or a passage of a book that you love," she said.
Mailey responded by saying you currently cannot send homemade cookies to inmates.
Policies regarding sending books to inmates vary widely among states but in New York inmates who requested books were generally able to get them before now, Schaffer said.
Popular titles include dictionaries, murder mysteries and books about African-American and Latino history, he said.