New York lawmakers this week announced a plan to introduce legislation to overturn a controversial policy that keeps families from sending packages to people incarcerated in prisons.
By August, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), the state agency that manages prisons, had fully eliminated families' ability to directly send care packages to people incarcerated. Officials said the move was an attempt to reduce contraband that contributes to violence and overdoses.
However, advocates and some lawmakers have warned the policy doesn't reduce contraband. Instead, they say, it further disconnects families, and poses harmful health consequences with people incarcerated not getting nutritious food, especially amid increased costs.
On Tuesday, Assemblymember David Weprin, D-Queens, said he and Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, intend to introduce legislation in January to overturn DOCCS' directive if agency officials or Gov. Kathy Hochul don't act. Both Weprin and Salazar chair the committees with oversight of prisons in their respective legislative chambers.
"Chair Salazar and I are drawing a demarcation line in the ground and demanding the immediate end of this directive," Weprin said at a press conference outside the Queensboro Correctional Facility in Long Island City. "We gave DOCCS a chance to do the right thing. It's time for us to do the right thing."
Health, costs in prisonNY prisons ban personal packages. Families say they'll pay the price.
Early data suggests ban works, prison officials say
In implementing the package ban, DOCCS officials cited increases since 2019 of packages with contraband. By 2020, DOCCS says it found 924 packages containing contraband, a three-fold increase from the previous year. Between January and August of 2021, 577 packages contained contraband.
In May 2022, the first eight prisons, concentrated in upstate, implemented the directive following a memorandum by Acting DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci, saying the department would phase in the policy. By Aug. 15, it was in effect at the last of the 44 prisons, all concentrated in downstate areas.
Early data show the policy is working, DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey said in an email. Through October of 2022, there's been an 81% drop in contraband items recovered in prison package rooms, from 112 to 21, compared to the same time last year, he wrote.
"DOCCS implemented the vendor package program upon recommendation of the Prison Violence Task Force, which sought to improve facility security for incarcerated individuals and staff by addressing the significant increase in number of packages found to contain contraband drugs and weapons," Mailey said in a statement. "The presence of contraband in correctional facilities exacerbates violence and enables illicit drug use."
However, Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, said package bans have detrimental effects on mental health for people incarcerated and wither away family connections, all while benefitting private companies to provide packages. Families now must go through vendors to deliver goods - as long as they're not on a banned list - but it can be pricy to buy and ship items to prisons.
"There's no evidence that we'd have that suggests that this is actually going to make prisons in New York State any safer," Bertram said. "There's every reason for legislators to pursue overturning the package bans."
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Recreating prior advocacy
Details of the bill to overturn DOCCS' policy are forthcoming, Weprin's office said, but lawmakers aim to prevent years of attempts to restrict packages for incarcerated people. In 2018, DOCCS piloted its Secure Vendors Program limiting most packages sent to a few prisons; families could only go through certain vendors.
A few days after implementing the policy, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo rescinded the program amid public outcry.
Families now hope they can recreate pushback to overturn the latest policy, in order to provide nutritious food, clothing and hygienic materials they say prisons don't have in adequate amounts.
"We provide that, families provide that," said Aqirah Stanley, a deputy director at the criminal justice reform nonprofit Alliance of Families for Justice who was formerly incarcerated, including while she was pregnant. She now has a loved one in prison. "Because the Department of Corrections does not," she said. "New York State does not."
In the meantime, prices have increased in prison commissaries, making healthy food difficult to afford.
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Jeannie Colon said her husband Jose, 40, is lucky − his incarcerated job classification at Sing Sing Correctional Facility allows him to spend about $15 in commissary every two weeks, more than most others in prison. He has half a thyroid, which limits his food options because his gland regulates his metabolism.
Soaring food prices have made it harder to purchase goods as simple as Jose's "survival kit," peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "He can't even afford peanut butter and jelly," Colon said. "It's either one or the other."
People currently and formerly incarcerated have described essentials that packages provide. But they also help maintain connections with others outside prison walls.
During Brooklyn native Patrick Stephens' 24-year prison sentence, his mother sent him mangoes from her tree in South Florida. She picked them before anyone else got to the tree in her backyard that abuts the street, Stephens, 49, recalled.
Stephens, now a youth services leadership fellow at the prison reform nonprofit Center for Community Alternatives after his release in May, could see his mother's effort.
He might give away one or two. Another, he added, went on his windowsill - so his cell smelled like mango.
"To receive something from home, you can't put a price on that," he said. "They could have put dirt in that box. I know that comes from our house."
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Here's why NY lawmakers aim to overturn prison package ban