A test policy makes getting books in prison harder

Prison reading material has been in the headlines recently, with new rules in New York State and a short-lived book ban in New Jersey.
Prison reading material has been in the headlines recently, with new rules in New York State and a short-lived book ban in New Jersey. Photo Credit: New York State Department of Corrections; AP / NYPD

The New York State prison system decided last month to get extremely picky about what could be sent in packages to some inmates. If you’re not sending a wedding ring, release clothes or a non-electrical musical instrument, don’t bother putting a box in the mail. Under the new policy, you must do your sending through a handful of pre-selected vendors.

One problem with that pre-selection: the laughable supply of books inmates would be allowed to get through the original vendors. They included little more than a couple of puzzle books, “Fun With the Harmonica,” “Screenwriting for Dummies,” plus some self-help. In terms of a narrative you could lose yourself in and transport yourself for a while, your best bet was “The Hustler’s Daughter.”

For now, the new rules are in effect on a trial basis at three prisons. But it wasn’t great timing for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to crack down on care packages, given that two New Jersey prisons recently prohibited inmates from access to Michelle Alexander’s screed about the problems with prisons and the justice system, “The New Jim Crow.”

Outcry led to a reversal

Last week, a month after New York’s new shipping policy began, a new vendor came online with a more substantial reading selection, Shakespeare included. But inmates still are lacking Spanish-language titles: none are available in the online catalogue. And nonprofits like Books Through Bars have been barred from sending books directly to inmates, as they’ve done for 21 years in 39 other states.

The new package rules have larger effects than books, however. The online choices can be more expensive than buying items in bulk, says Assemb. David Weprin, chair of the Assembly’s correction committee. He said he’s also heard from imams and rabbis who have complained about the lack of halal and kosher options through the vendors, plus the fruits and vegetables often used to supplement religious diets.

Weprin says he has spoken to DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci about the directive multiple times and hopes it will be dropped.

For his part, Annucci stressed in an interview that pilots let administrators learn lessons, and lesson learned: “We’ve heard the feedback.”

The main impetus for all these little indignities is a 64 percent increase in package room drug contraband recovered since 2013, according to Annucci. DOCCS already had strict security rules for packages, including x-ray machines and physical inspections, but “it is a constant struggle” keeping illegal drugs out, he says.

However, Annucci says he’s now heard the issues about books, which he says are key to inmate education, and other missing items.

“I am going to ensure that they continue to get the same access that they currently enjoy,” he says of inmates. To do so, he vows to work with vendors to add items.

As Annucci and other prison officials know, books aren’t an idle recreation for those behind bars. Nick Franklin, who works with the Brooklyn Public Library’s Jail and Prison Library program, says inmates often go through a book a week.

Reading “five hours a day, is not unheard of,” he says.

What’s popular in libraries behind bars?

Self-help books are popular, as are the sort of “urban fiction” stories of gang life that are like modern “Westerns,” Franklin says. But reading tastes on Rikers Island tend to run the gamut in the way they do for most readers, necessitating a wide variety of books (New York City’s correction system is not involved with the state’s package policy).

When Franklin goes cell to cell with the books, inmates request titles in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese. The “Harry Potter” series, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Stephen King and James Patterson are all in high demand.

The librarians in the program and others like it ask inmates what they’re looking for, and try to satisfy their needs when they can.

That’s because they’re people “who we know are going to come back to Brooklyn and seek our help in the branches and the neighborhoods,” Franklin says. Meaning that it matters how they fare inside.