This article was produced in collaboration with Bolts.
On Monday, more than 6,000 people incarcerated in New York prisons lost their right to regularly receive care packages by mail or in person from family and friends.
The state prison agency is piloting the new restrictions at eight prisons, with plans to expand them to the rest. Under the policy, family and friends are no longer allowed to bring their loved ones packages of food when they come to visit or to send them through the mail, and can’t send more than two non-food packages each year. Everything else must be purchased and sent through private companies willing to ship to prisons.
Incarcerated people say the new restrictions will cut off a lifeline. “Am I going to be prevented from getting winter clothes if I get a book from my mom in the summer?” asked Jeremy Zielinski, currently incarcerated at Attica, in a phone call with New York Focus and Bolts.
An April 25 memo to the incarcerated population from acting Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Anthony Annucci, obtained by Bolts and New York Focus, says the new policy is a response to “an increase in violence and overdoses due to the introduction of contraband through the package room, specifically, illicit drugs and weapons.”
Whether or not mailrooms are a major entrypoint for contraband is the subject of much debate. There is ample evidence nationwide of corrections officers bringing drugs, weapons, and other contraband into prisons and jails; in the last two years, multiple New York City corrections officers faced charges for allegedly smuggling contraband into jails in exchange for cash. In 2020, Texas corrections officials limited mail to curb the contraband problem. One year later, an investigation revealed no impact on the amount of drugs circulating in state prisons.
A prison agency spokesperson declined to provide data on how often the security staff that screen packages in New York have identified contraband, or how that rate has changed over time. The new package policy is based on a recommendation from the agency’s Prison Violence Task Force, composed of prison staff, administrators, and representatives of the correction officers union.
Annucci, who leads the prison agency, has been acting commissioner since 2013. Governor Kathy Hochul appointed him as commissioner, but he has yet to be confirmed as lawmakers from both parties raised concerns over high death rates and other issues in prisons under his watch. Hochul did not respond to a request for comment.
A Revived Program
The new restrictions are a revived version of a stalled 2018 initiative, the “Secure Vendor Package Program,” which would have required all packages to be sent from six approved private companies. Those prison-specific vendors offered limited selections at steep markups, with prices as much as 130 percent higher than on the outside. After immense pushback, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the agency to halt the program after just 10 days.
“I did 12 years in prison. My whole time in prison, I’ve never received a package from a vendor,” says Michael Capers, who was incarcerated at Upstate, Franklin, and Fishkill Correctional Facilities. “And the reason being is because it’s too expensive. So my family, I told them I’d rather have nothing than to make them pay extra money.”
New York is one of the few states that still permits non-vendor packages to be sent to incarcerated people at all. The majority of state correctional departments have entered contracts with private package companies, including New York. “Reintroducing the secure vendor program is an unfortunate and avoidable step in the direction that so many other corrections agencies across the country have gone,” says Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, the state’s legally designated prison monitor.
While the 2018 program only allowed certain approved vendors, the new program doesn’t force people to choose from a limited list. Instead, it doesn’t define “vendor” at all. But Wilfredo Laracuente, who was released from Sing Sing Correctional Facility in July, predicted that the new policy will offer little more choice than its predecessor.
“A lot of the families, they use Walmart, they use Target, they use Western Beef, they use Shoprite, they use Tops, they use Wegmans. The majority of these places don’t ship directly to correctional facilities,” Laracuente said. “If we can’t really get the items that we need to go ahead and shop for our family members, then we have to use the six vendors that were originally introduced to use.”
Mainstream retailers sometimes send shipments in multiple packages, which can violate limitations on the weight and number of packages incarcerated people are allowed to receive. These logistical factors can compel loved ones of incarcerated people to use prison-specific vendors, in spite of high costs and extremely limited inventory. Families and friends will also have to shoulder costs associated with vendor packages beyond the markups: they won’t be able to use food stamps, coupons, donated food, or to avoid shipping costs by bringing packages during visits.
“I don’t get why they’re treating this population of people differently than the rest of the New Yorkers, like we don’t need every cent that we earn, every cent that we bring into our household,” says Indira Bowen, whose husband is incarcerated at Sing Sing. “Most of us can’t handle this extra expense out of nowhere.”
The new restrictions will also make it harder for incarcerated people to access fresh and healthy food. “Food packages from family members, friends, and community groups are the primary way for incarcerated people to maintain a healthy diet while incarcerated,” the members of a group of farmers and family members that provides fresh food to incarcerated people wrote in an open letter about the new directive.
Food packages supplement the limited offerings in prison, which Zielinski describes as “meeting the constitutional minimum, just barely.” A 2021 survey by the Correctional Association found that more than 90 percent of incarcerated New Yorkers report that the food they’re offered is bland and tasteless, that they sometimes skip meals as a result, and that they prefer food received in packages or purchased through the commissary.
Even among commissary options, the pickings are slim. “The fresh vegetables currently offered in the commissary at Green Haven and Fishkill are limited to two: onions and garlic (we hear that these items are often rotten),” advocates wrote in the open letter. “The ‘fruit’ available is limited to one item: a fruit cup. Currently that fruit cup is on the ‘out of stock’ list at Fishkill.”
In a statement to New York Focus, DOCCS officials said they plan to expand fresh produce offerings in all prisons as they roll out the new package restrictions. They also highlighted the prices for prison commissary: at Attica, bananas are 16 cents each, heads of lettuce are $2.63, a bag of onions costs $1.20, tomatoes are 42 cents, a two-pack of garlic is 45 cents, and green peppers are $1.12.
But incarcerated workers only earn between 16 cents and 65 cents an hour, making even seemingly reasonable prices out of reach for many incarcerated people unless family or friends deposit money into their commissary accounts — a financial burden that many are unable to shoulder. In the survey, more than 85 percent of incarcerated people said that the quality of food they can access is limited by their family’s finances.
“There are so many people whose families live on paycheck to paycheck and are on food stamps,” wrote a woman currently incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in a letter forwarded to Bolts and New York Focus. Jennifer Fecu, who was formerly incarcerated at Bedford Hills, agreed: “It’s already hard to send things in when we’re not making any money. We’re just drawing from people that are already struggling.”
Jalal Sabur is a founder of Sweet Freedom Farm in Germantown, a group that grows and distributes produce to people in prisons. Sweet Freedom set up farm stands at the Fishkill and Attica prisons, where they hand out packages of fresh food for visitors to bring into the facilities. (The new policy includes an exception for licensed charities, but Sabur’s group is not a registered non-profit.)
“Now, no one can actually bring those packages in,” Sabur said. “So that whole program that we’ve been doing, we can’t do anymore.”
An Officer Backlash?
Before the memo hit prison cells, notice of the updated package directive appeared in the April 20 New York State Register, which provides weekly updates on rulemaking changes by state agencies. The new package restrictions were included in a series of amendments with the stated purpose “to revise regulations to be in compliance with the new HALT legislation and applicable laws,” referring to the enactment of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, a law that ended long-term solitary confinement and took effect on April 1 of this year.
The correction officer’s union, which fiercely opposed HALT and is suing to overturn it in court, has argued that the new restrictions on solitary confinement are leading to an increase in violence against officers. In recent months, it has urged the state to revive the package ban as one way to protect officers against that violence — and participated on the task force that recommended the new policy.
“Despite the best efforts by security staff, contraband still filters into the hands of inmates at facilities, whether it be through drug-soaked papers or creatively hidden inside of candy wrappers and other packaged foods,” a union spokesperson told New York Focus and Bolts. “Through [the union’s] participation in the recently formed Prison Violence Task Force, we are working with DOCCS to pilot a new vendor program aimed specifically at curtailing drugs from entering facilities through the prison mail system.”
That has raised the suspicion among incarcerated people and advocates that the package policy may be a way for the state to placate a disgruntled union.
“I do wonder if there’s a way in which the department is attempting to roll out this secure vendor program as a way of quelling some of the concerns that they’re hearing from the union around the implications of, for example, the HALT solitary act,” Scaife said. “If [corrections officers] are expressing concerns about HALT and DOCCS can’t do anything about it because it’s the law, packages are something that’s within their control.”
It’s already hard to send things in when we’re not making any money. We’re just drawing from people that are already struggling.
“HALT stopped the Department of Corrections from weaponizing solitary confinement and weaponizing long term confinement,” said Joseph Wilson, who’s currently incarcerated at Sing Sing. “So now the officers inside are upset that they no longer can use these particular things as a deterrent for certain types of behavior. This package ban indicates that they’re trying to regain control.”
Packages have long been a thorn in the side of corrections officers. Sorting through each package is time-consuming, and package rooms are an additional role to fill in a prison system that officers say is understaffed. The process is subject to lengthy delays: Scaife said she often hears stories of incarcerated people receiving home-baked cookies or other perishable items weeks after they were sent, spoiled by the time they’re received.
When the secure vendor program was shut down in 2018, Zielinski said he often heard corrections staff express frustration. “For weeks you heard them saying stuff like, ‘I can’t believe they’re treating these guys like this, giving them all this stuff.’ It’s almost like they’re incensed or offended that we’re being treated like human beings,” he said.
In the absence of data on how much contraband is getting in through packages, measuring the policy’s impact will be difficult. Scaife is skeptical that it will meaningfully reduce the amount of contraband or violence in prisons.
“Are we going to see the same amount of contraband after the policy is introduced? I fear that we might,” she said. “Prisons are porous, and if you’re going to keep taking away privileges and pieces of people’s humanity, you’re still going to have the same problems of violence and unpredictable reactions to drugs inside, because these are a function of people being incarcerated.”
Zielinksi suggested that restricting people’s access to packages could heighten the frustrations and tensions that lead to violence in the first place. “It would be an understatement to say that people are very upset about this,” he said. “It seems like a really dumb idea considering the history of this place. I don’t think they want Attica [uprising] 2.0.”
“I think DOCCS is grossly underestimating how important packages are to people,” he continued. “They’re going to cause more problems than they’re trying to solve. And the problems that they’re trying to solve aren’t going to be solved by eliminating packages from home, because anybody who wants to get stuff in is going to get it in anyway. All it’s going to do is make quality of life lower for everybody else.”