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The Debate in New York State Prisons: Contraband Versus Intellectual Freedom

The Debate in New York State Prisons: Contraband vs. Intellectual Freedom

Last month, a new directive seeking to limit contraband in New York State correctional facilities revived the public debate over the intellectual freedom of prisoners and their access to goods more broadly. “The debate over intellectual freedom” really means just one thing: People got heated. Over books.

Directive 4911A, or the “Secure Vendor Program” sought to establish vendor relationships to control care package contents for the primary purpose of limiting contraband. The directive, released by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), seems to be a go-to guide for what items they will allow for prisoners.

Three prisons in New York state piloted the “Secure Vendor Program”. The pilot involved six approved vendors. Outcry erupted over the vendors’ lack of quality reading material and raised serious questions about the directive’s drawbacks.

Media Timeline

Here’s a media timeline, en-brief, which gives a sample of the public reaction:

Books Through Bars Brings Attention

A lot of attention brought the issue by (NYC) Books Through Bars – whose media timeline serves as a far more comprehensive curation of the public response to DOCCS Directive 4911A.

Books Through Bars is not one of the “approved vendors”. The program is run by volunteers who have long sought to expand inmate access to books. Under the new directive, Books Through Bars would be unable to send its donated books to prisoners.

Governor Cuomo also brought attention to the issue. Prison advocates and news outlets praised the Governor when, on January 12, he tweeted:

“I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipments of books & care packages to inmates. Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.”

Intellectual Freedom and Access for Prisoners

Many publicly articulated objections to the program are grounded in intellectual freedom and access. Prison librarians are uniquely familiar with the intellectual freedoms of inmates, and in some cases, challenges to those freedoms.

According to “Challenges and Accomplishments in U.S. Prison Libraries,” an article published in 2011, an estimated 950 prisons across the country have libraries. A long history precedes the establishment of libraries and book collections in American prisons. Part of that history includes important legal cases which set precedent for prisoner rights and public attitudes toward prison reform.

These cases gave rise to popular public sentiments, well-articulated by the American Library Association’s Prisoner’s Right to Read and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall:

When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.  If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.

Participation in a democratic society requires unfettered access to current social, political, economic, cultural, scientific, and religious information. Information and ideas available outside the prison are essential to prisoners for a successful transition to freedom. Learning to be free requires access to a wide range of knowledge, and suppression of ideas does not prepare the incarcerated of any age for life in a free society.

When free people, through judicial procedure, segregate some of their own, they incur the responsibility to provide humane treatment and essential rights.  Among these is the right to read. The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of the right to read, to write, and to think—to intellectual freedom—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society. Those who cherish their full freedom and rights should work to guarantee that the right to intellectual freedom is extended to all incarcerated individuals.”

The motion up for debate: care packages from catalogs, not from outside.

For the motion:

The public needs to know that contraband in our prisons is a real and growing problem. The safety of our correctional facility guards is dependent on a realistic approach to the issue.

The intent of the Secure Vendor Program was “to enhance the safety and security of correctional facilities through a more controlled inmate package program” according to a descriptive statement that accompanied Directive 4911A.

An article published on February 3 – Prison contraband seizures up, guards say more can be done – reports that incidents involving contraband in New York state’s 54 prisons has doubled in recent years. In 2008, there was 2,540 reported incidents. Last year, there was 5,231. What are people trying to smuggle in? Everything from synthetic marijuana to scalpel blades.

Against the motion:

The vendors could have learned a thing or two from Amazon, and started with books.

The price controls and generally limited selection of items available from the six vendors is troubling. Inmates rely on care packages to accommodate dietary restrictions, religious needs, and supply of general necessities like deodorant and information.

With the new requirements set forth by the Secure Vendor Program, family and friends seeking to send care packages have to have a credit card and internet access. This can be a barrier for people who face challenges financially or without internet access. The inmates and their family are subject to price controls set by the vendor industry. Those vendors are not offering products at competitive open-market prices. The closed market relationship is troublesome.

Continued effort is required for prisons to become facilities of rehabilitation instead of retribution. Books are part of that effort. Prisons must be more strategic and humanizing when it comes to statewide care package reform.

Undecided?

The issue of how best to run prisons has been up for debate before and will be again.

In the wake of public outcry, however, the care package pilot project has been canceled. It will be up to project stakeholders to find a better, book-rich solution. Prison librarians might seize the hype of Directive 4911A to stir public conversation about increased investment in prison library resources and services, and furthermore testify to the powerful impact of those resources and services.

Keep Reading

Want to Read more about what it’s like to be a prison librarian? Check out this article by Kayla Del Biondo, Library Friday: New York Public Library at Rickers Island.


Works Cited

Bromwich, J. E., & Mueller, B. (2018, January 8). Ban on Book About Mass Incarceration Lifted in New Jersey Prisons After A.C.L.U. Protest. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/08/nyregion/new-jim-crow-nj-jails.html

Hart, A. (2018, January 16). Perspective | Librarians despise censorship. How can prison librarians handle that? It’s complicated. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/01/16/librarians-despise-censorship-how-can-prison-librarians-handle-that-its-complicated/

Howell, Daedalus. (2018, January 11). Banned Books Raise Inmate Rights Issues in New York and New Jersey. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from http://correctionalnews.com/2018/01/11/banned-books-raise-inmate-rights-issues/

Inmates Can’t Receive Donated Books Anymore, They Have to Buy Them. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.wnyc.org/story/ny-inmates-can-no-longer-receive-donated-books-they-have-purchase-them/

Lehmann, V. (2011). Challenges and Accomplishments in U.S. Prison Libraries. Library Trends; Baltimore, 59(3), 490–508.

Library Services in New York State’s Correctional Facilities: Coordinated Outreach Services Program: Library Development: New York State Library. (n.d.). Retrieved January 24, 2018, from http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/outreach/corr.htm

N.Y. Prisons Are Limiting What Types Of Care Packages Inmates Can Receive. (n.d.). Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2018/01/11/577453496/ny-prisons-are-limiting-what-types-of-care-packages-inmates-can-receive

PM, C. D. S. O. 1/9/18 at 1:13. (2018, January 9). New York is piloting a program that limits the books inmates can read to “sex novels and bibles.” Retrieved January 24, 2018, from http://www.newsweek.com/new-york-prisons-impose-draconinan-rules-limiting-books-inmates-can-read-sex-775708

Press, S. W. (2018, January 12). New York Cancels Private Prison Care Packages Program. Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/01/12/new-york-cancels-private-prison-care-packages-program

The Big Business of Prisoner Care Packages. (2017, December 21). Retrieved January 24, 2018, from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/12/21/the-big-business-of-prisoner-care-packages

Samantha Mairson

Samantha Mairson

Samantha or Sam, I like to be surprised. My goal here is to promote, capture, and express the Syracuse iSchool experience through digital media and design-oriented blogging. At the iSchool, I'm an LIS student and I work as a program assistant for the Enrollment Management Team. My love for libraries brought me here, and I aspire to work in a great library. When I'm not working or schooling - food, fitness, and family are my priorities.

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