National News

In Prison, Chips but Not Chaucer

Posted January 13, 2018 5:05 p.m. EST

This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who has spent the past year shape-shifting his way into the facsimile of a leftist mascot, came up against the contradictions of political marketing. Cuomo recently proposed a series of legislative changes to the judicial system that he called “the most progressive set of reforms in the nation.” Yet at the same time, his own Department of Corrections was moving ahead with an entirely off-brand initiative whose disturbing effect was to reduce inmate access to reading material.

The program, which was in a pilot phase in three prisons, confined what inmates could receive to the inventory of six vendors who specialize in prison care-packages and offer relatively few books that deviate from the categories of religious text or insipid fiction. The impetus for it had been concern over an increasing volume of heroin entering the prison system. During a single week in April 2015, more than 25 people were treated for overdoses across the state’s prisons. In 2017, over Columbus Day weekend, eight people were treated in a single facility.

But among those who would no longer be able to supply books to prisoners was a volunteer organization called Books Through Bars that delivers thousands of books a year to prisoners around the country free, about cultural history, chess, origami, language-learning. Some of the books in highest demand deal with fighting addiction and depression. The organization was hardly a source of contraband.

If you are thinking about running for president as a Democrat in 2020, you don’t want to be the person who stood in the way of anyone reading de Tocqueville in lockup. By Friday afternoon, in the wake of much criticism leveled at the Department of Corrections, the governor announced via Twitter that he was rescinding the “flawed pilot program.'’

The vendors with whom the state had contracted were chosen for their ability to deliver secure packaging, but there are broad problems with the services they provide. The products sold are typically offered with little regard to the farmers market values we have imposed on every other corner of American life. Foodwise, “it’s all junk,” I was told by a woman named Kay White, who for several years had a close friend who was serving out a prison sentence, moving among several medium-security institutions in upstate New York, near the Canadian border.

When she visited, White, a media buyer living in the borough of Brooklyn, in New York City, would bring him fresh fruit, hermetically sealed according to prison regulations, and shrimp that was fully cooked, prepackaged and tightly sealed, but not frozen. What she quickly observed is that inmates without friends and family on the outside taking caring of them — “doing a bid,” in the parlance of the system — were dependent on getting the extras that make prison life marginally less stultifying from companies that delivered T-shirts, sneakers, crackers, Funyuns, Doritos, Listerine and so on solely to convicts. And their prices are high: The 10-ounce bag of miniature 3 Musketeers that costs $3.33 if they are bought online from Target costs just under $5 if you are sending them, for instance, from Walkenhorst’s, a 25-year-old supplier of prison care packages, to the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility in Jefferson County. At EFordcommissary, which bills itself as “New York State’s No. 1 Source for Inmate Commissary!” the category of “Healthy/Nutritious” snacks features three products, all of them Fiber One bars, in the flavors of Streusel, Chocolate, Cinnamon Coffee Cake and a few others, none of them embracing the ethos of the grain bowl. The fruit the company offers is all presliced in plastic cups.

“Can you imagine not having a peach for 20 years?” White asked.

These restrictions would not be quite so upsetting if prison food itself weren’t a punch line, if the education of inmates wasn’t underfunded and inadequate, and if the libraries in the facilities themselves even remotely reflected the means by which knowledge in the 21st century is acquired. Inmates don’t have internet access, and in New York, unlike in California, they have not been permitted $60 e-readers made for people in prison, which come with hundreds of titles including “The Souls of Black Folk,” “Ulysses” and “Emma.” Although corrections officials maintain that technological upgrading is close at hand, prison libraries are notoriously outdated, stocked with encyclopedias that are decades old.

“You’re relying on Britannica from the ‘90s,” Devon Simmons, who served more than 15 years in various maximum security prisons in New York, told me. “It diminishes the intellect of the incarcerated scholar.” I caught him on the phone as he was walking from the Museum of Modern Art to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he is about to complete his bachelor’s degree. He recalled a time when he was desperate to read Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father,” but grew disheartened when it was available neither in his prison library nor the small-town library, beyond the wires, with which his facility, Otisville Correctional, had a lending program. He finally got to read it when it arrived in a package for one of his friends, but by borrowing it he was violating a rule about trading property, he said. “Isn’t that silly?”

What if, in fact, there were an Amazon for prisoners, even a low-tech version, an apparatus through which they could get food, books and other things — properly contained — delivered to them, which didn’t merely mimic the caricatures of ghetto life? It is a project White has been working on for a while, with support from the Dream Big Foundation, an incubator for entrepreneurs in underserved communities. Her vision involves distributing circulars to the family members of inmates, perhaps when they are in line for buses on their way to prison visits, and ultimately delivering what prisoners might actually want in meticulous wrapping. Let the next Jeff Bezos be a black, single mother from Flatbush.