New York Prisons Allow Books, But Not Information

Last fall, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision introduced a harsh new pilot program. It banned inmates in three prisons from receiving or ordering packages from anywhere except six approved vendors.

Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo tweeted his plans to rescind the “flawed” directive 4911A, which also banned fresh fruit, vegetables and hoodies. As many pointed out, the vendors’ book selections are small to nonexistent, which is not only an inconvenience, but also an attack on prisoners’ right to information, to learn and rehabilitate while incarcerated.

While the pilot program was rescinded, the use of vendors still worries prisoner advocates. Individual prisons still require inmates use only vendors and the NYS DOCCS has not announced what “redouble efforts to fight prison contraband” means.

“Any use of a vendors-only system is unjust and fundamentally misunderstands and disregards the material reality of prisoners,” says Melissa Marturano, a representative of Books Through Bars (BTB), a non-profit that donates books to prisoners in 40 states. “Prison libraries are often out of stock, out of date and replete with mass market fiction.”

BTB sends all genres of books in answer to prisoner requests, but they specialize in radical political literature. Unsurprisingly, most prison vendors don’t carry that sort of literature.

Before rescinding 4911A, the NYS DOCCS added another vendor in response to the outcry. However, that vendor was “still woefully inadequate,” Marturano says. “They have no [fiction] books in Spanish. They don’t have any books by Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. Any books by very important black intellectuals.”

More importantly, Marturano says, “the fundamental issue is that prisoners have to pay for the books.” Prisoners make as low as ten cents an hour. They come from economically, socially and racially marginalized communities. Some can’t even afford the postage to send letters requesting books from BTB.

“There’s this massive trend to privatize access to books, information, food, clothing,” says Marturano.

That won’t stop with the death of this pilot program. She’s concerned because privatizing access means cutting prisoners off from what she calls a “type of content [that] gives prisoners context for why they’re incarcerated.”

A little-known rule in New York lets prisoners purchase a personal TV set from the prison commissary. The prison population must vote on the rule and if a majority votes yes, then all prisoners are subjected to the rule. If the prison population votes on becoming a “TV facility,” all the prisoners lose the right to receive any more than two packages from family per year, containing only food.

The vote is irreversible. Prisoners may still order from vendors but as noted, those are insufficient and too many can’t afford it on their ten cents an hour pay.

TV facilities have been around in New York for years, as far back as 1988 at Wende Correctional Facility. At the time, it was novel but received positively for its tranquilizing effect on prisoners. Then-prison director Dominic Mantello told the LA Times he was skeptical of the idea, not wanting to appear “coddling.” “Let’s face it,” Mantello told the paper, “these people were sent here to be punished.”

He only approved of the program once he saw it caused inmates to remain in their cells, instead of gathering in group recreation areas. He claimed that was the safest place for them and the guards.

While this was now thirty years ago, Montello’s attitude was telling. TV facilities were not designed for prisoner rehabilitation or comfort in mind. They were designed to keep prisoners from organizing, from learning, from having contact with each other and the outside world.

The same week Directive 4911A received public backlash for its paltry offerings, New Jersey lifted a ban on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in state prisons. The book argues that the prison system is modern slavery, disproportionately targeting people of color and other marginalized groups. Like New York, New Jersey lifted the ban following public outcry and a letter from the ACLU.

Prisoner advocates are particularly wary of celebrating the reversal on 4911A or lifting the ban on The New Jim Crow because the corrections system is arbitrarily regulated—often depending on the whims of individual guards and officers and regardless of state or federal codes.

Bonnie Kerness is the Program Director for the American Friends Service Committee, Prison Watch, a group that publishes information about life while incarcerated, particularly in solitary confinement. She recalls years-long communication with a prisoner in solitary to whom she tried sending one of their publications, the Survivor’s Manual, with testimonies by people living in solitary confinement, numerous times. It was rejected.

“This is life-saving information,” Kerness says. “What? The Survivor’s Manual is going to foment revolution?”

The AFSC Prison Watch sends and receives prisoner testimonies across the country and corrections officers randomly deny them with little to no explanations. “They do it because they can,” says Kerness. “They do it because [prisoners are] often a population that’s unread until they get to in prison. Then they want to read. Then they want to learn.”

Kerness started working with prisoners in the 1970s, when members of the Black Panther Party were routinely arrested and kept in solitary confinement. She expresses deep concern that what we’re seeing now is “very similar” to what she saw then.

Kerness and Marturano both welcome the reversal of 4911A and the New Jersey book ban but say both were merely small symptoms in a deeply corrupt system.

“The fact that we exist is already a problem,” Marturano says about Books Through Bars. “The fact that we’re helping prisoners learn and survive—the state has already failed them.”