New York to end ‘flawed’ program that cut people in prison off from books, fresh fruit

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a rally of hundreds of union members in support of IBEW Local 3. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

New York’s Department of Corrections will not expand a pilot program that severely restricted the types of packages available to people in prison in the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced Friday.

“Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband,” Cuomo tweeted.

The program, known as directive 4911 A, was being tested in three prisons in New York, and it limited the packages that people in prison could receive to items purchased only from a handful of approved vendors, and Cuomo’s decision to rescind it comes just days after ThinkProgress first reported about the story and particular restrictions placed on books available to incarcerated people in the state.

The state claimed the program would “enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program,” but the reality of the directive meant incarcerated people were severely cut off from vital reading material.

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. The state planned to add additional vendors with more books, but the move still cut out non-profits like the Books Through Bars collective, which works to provide people in prison with books of their choice at no cost. The directive also meant that people in prison were no longer going to be able to receive packages of fresh produce and their visitors would no longer be allowed to bring gifts.

“Small businesses are dismissed in favor of exploitative prison industry businesses,” Books Through Bars said in a statement earlier this month objecting to the directive. “This draconian restriction closes off so much of the world to thousands of people.”

When ThinkProgress reached out to Cuomo’s office for comment on the program, Cuomo declined to respond and directed ThinkProgress to the DOCCS.

The DOCCS responded to questions about the program late Monday evening, calling ThinkProgress’s reporting “patently false” and saying the secure vendor programs are a “national best practice.”

But on Friday, Cuomo called the program “flawed.”

The DOCCS also changed its tune Friday, saying in a statement that the “concerns have been raised by the families of inmates.” The department still leaned on the fact that their program was “similar ones already in place in nearly 30 other states.”

“To that end, the Governor has directed the Department to suspend this pilot program until these concerns are addressed,” DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey said in an email. “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.”