ThinkProgress

A new program in New York is severely restricting the books available to people in prison

Governor Cuomo tours Dannemora correctional facility known as 'Little Siberia,' where two inmates, Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, escaped. CREDIT: Photo by Darren McGee/New York State Governor's Office/Corbis via Getty Images

A new program in New York is severely restricting the books available to people in prison.

Directive 4911A, which was issued last month, currently applies to three prisons in the state and could be expanded to every facility in New York. The plan limits packages that incarcerated people in New York state prisons can receive to items purchased from six vendors (with two more expected to be added), a move the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision claims will “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program.”

The first five vendors combined offered just five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus. Last week, the state appeared to add a sixth vendor, but the full catalog doesn’t appear to be available to people in prison in the state, and the governor’s office did not respond to questions about the addition.

One group, the Books Through Bars collective, has been working to raise red flags about the directive’s unintended consequences. For more than 20 years, Books Through Bars has been sending books to people in prison in 40 states at no charge. Incarcerated people and their families can write to Books Through Bars to request any book on any topic, and the all-volunteer organization sends 600 packages every month fulfilling those requests.

The 4911A directive would mean that people in prison would have, as Books Through Bars wrote in a statement objecting to the policy before the sixth vendor was added, “[n]o Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human. 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.”

Amy Peterson, a Books Through Bars member, told ThinkProgress Monday that a man once wrote the group to say the books they’d provided to him made it possible for him to learn English — a skill that greatly increased his job prospects upon release. Other people in prison have asked Books Through Bars for books about business. That would no longer be possible should 4911A become the statewide policy.

Peterson also said that in more than two decades of work, Books Through Bars has never had an instance of someone finding contraband in a book they’ve provided and never heard of any of their packages being a safety issue. Limiting book availability also goes against the clear, researched link about education in prison and lower rates of recidivism, Peterson said Monday.

“It’s my personal feeling that it’s misguided,” Peterson said Monday. “This provision wasn’t well thought out… Now families have to order from these catalogs.”

Being forced to order from the approved vendors is another red flag for Books Through Bars. As Peterson noted, many people in prison and their families face financial challenges, and even if the directive allowed for a more expansive library, the move forces families to purchase books for their loved ones, while Books Through Bars can and will provide them for free.

Books aren’t the only thing limited by the new directive. It also means that people in prison will not be allowed packages of fresh produce, their visitors will no longer be allowed to bring gifts, and, as Books Through Bars put it in their statement, “small businesses are dismissed in favor of exploitative prison industry businesses.”

Peterson said Monday that she thinks the new directive comes from the same line of thinking that produced the state’s “TV facilities.” Nine facilities in the state are considered “TV facilities,” where incarcerated people, because there is access to television, are restricted to just two food packages per year. Until now, books have been an exception to the TV facility rule.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been floated as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, referred ThinkProgress to his administration’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) for comment. His office did not answer questions about whether the governor supports the new, restrictive directive and whether he thinks Books Through Bars’ criticisms of the pilot program are valid.

Late Monday evening, DOCCS responded to requests for comment, saying in a statement, “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.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

CORRECTION: The headline of this article has been updated to correct the number of books allowed inside New York state prisons. An earlier version stated that the number was 98; the correct total is 77.