Families send packages to incarcerated loved ones to make them feel normal, human, loved. But when institutions mandate private vendors, many can no longer afford to send gifts, or even basic necessities.
In late December, families of prisoners in New York State were startled and devastated to learn they could no longer purchase food, clothing, and personal items for their incarcerated loved ones, except through a set of state-approved private vendors.
My foster sister called to tell me the news. She is incarcerated in Taconic Correctional Facility, one of three “pilot” prisons where the policy was tested before an intended rollout to all 54 facilities. She wanted to make sure my parents knew not to bring their usual bags of groceries on their upcoming visit. The new rules felt frustrating and unfair. Not only do packages of slim jims and sweatpants help keep my foster sister from going to bed hungry and cold, they are a way for me to tell her, you are remembered and loved.
“Items that come in packages are what remind people—who are treated like animals every day—that they are human,” says Caroline Hsu, staff attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.
Like all United States prison systems, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) has always enforced strict, often frustrating, package rules. We’ve had sandwich bread turned away because it wasn’t factory double-bagged, lotion denied for containing alcohol, and underwear prohibited because the band was a contrasting color.
But never before had the department restricted where we could purchase these items. My parents pick up on-sale items at the local supermarket, and I order periodic shipments of books and clothes directly from major online retailers. I usually buy packaged pasta sides for $1 from the supermarket or Amazon, but they cost $2.35 from E-Ford Commissary or $2.25 from Union Supply Company, two of the six approved New York vendors. Soap that costs about $.50 a bar in bulk from traditional retailers came out to over $1 from the secure vendors. In fact, secure vendor pricing varies widely, based on state contracts, causing the same radio from Access Securepak to cost $22 in Pennsylvania and $13 in Nebraska.
But then—less than two weeks after its introduction—New York’s new policy was abruptly rescinded by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The cancellation came after incarcerated people staged protests in Green Haven Correctional Facility, families sent postcards to DOCCS and the governor, and state legislators appealed to executive higher-ups on behalf of their constituents. “This is a really good example of people who were affected by this policy standing up together, and telling the government and the prison system that they had underestimated how important packages are to family members and to people who are inside,” said Hsu.
Like other family members, I was frustrated by the secure vendors’ costs and fees. But for many families affected by incarceration, premium prices and shipping fees aren’t just annoying—they’re prohibitive. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of mothers and fathers in state prisons were previously their children’s’ primary financial supporters. And for those without internet skills or access, ordering from online-only stores is impossible.
“The entire industry is meant to just nickel-and-dime people who are in prison and their families,” said Hsu.
Selling to literally captive customers is a lucrative business. The six companies approved to operate in New York ranged from smaller companies to industry giants with revenue above $100 million. When Access Securepak’s parent company, Keefe Group, was acquired by private equity firm HIG Capital in 2016, research organization Prison Policy Initiative estimated HIG’s collection of prison businesses would reach annual revenues of $875 million. Secure vendor services are just one facet of this mammoth industry. Private prison companies collect fees from phone calls, video visitation, money deposits, media downloads on prison-approved tablets, prepaid release debit cards, and a variety of other services, raking in billions from incarcerated people and their families.
Although it was not the case in New York, secure vendors often share their profits with correctional departments in the form of commissions. In a contract bid obtained by The Marshall Project, Union Supply Group predicted West Virginia would earn $95,000 a year from its 17 percent commission. In 2014, JPay, a major provider of prison technology services and subsidiary of Securus Technologies, paid commissions in Illinois averaging $4,000 a month. As a result, many correctional departments award contracts not to the company with the lowest costs for families, but to the one offering the biggest kickbacks.
In addition to paying direct commissions, prison service companies gave $1.6 million to state-level candidates and political committees between 2009 and 2016, according to research by the National Institute of Money in State Politics. During that time, they also spent $21 million lobbying in 11 states, including more than $1.4 million in New York. Keefe Group employed 22 lobbyists and Union Supply Group employed 15, although they did not focus their efforts in New York. The parent company of Union Supply Group donated to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and has received an 18 percent increase in federal contract awards since 2016.
According to DOCCS, nearly 30 state prison systems use secure vendors. Some states even ban packages entirely, forcing incarcerated people to purchase their own goods from privately-operated commissaries, at a steep markup. In Mississippi commissaries, basic items like cereal, snacks, batteries, and soap cost four times more than similar items in local discount stores, the Clarion Ledger reported in 2015. These policies add up to a $1.6 billion annual paycheck for private commissary companies — a bill, of course, that is footed by some of the poorest Americans.
Incarcerated people had a median income of about $19,000 prior to their incarceration—41 percent less than their non-incarcerated peers. Some families have to choose between accepting phone calls or sending packages, or even work extra jobs to supplement the prisons’ insufficient food and hygiene products. In 2015, the Correctional Association found that 54 percent of women in New York State prisons could not get through their periods with the 24 pads issued by the state. “My period lasts seven days,” said one woman. “Sometimes I have to wear four at a time because they are so thin.”
Cost wasn’t the only concern raised in New York by family members and advocates like the Prisoners’ Rights Project. Vendors were not required to stock all, or even most, allowable items. Hoodies, blankets, and towels were completely unavailable, and fresh produce was explicitly banned. The severely limited book selection, in particular, caught public attention. When DOOCS introduced the policy, its five vendors offered a total of 77 books—including 24 coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 14 religious texts, 11 how-to books, five sex-related novels, a dictionary, and a thesaurus. No other books were allowed.
Educational programming is rare in prisons, although those who participate in it are 43 percent less likely to return to prison, according to a 2013 meta analysis of 267 studies. In the absence of classes, many people turn to self-study. Books Through Bars, a volunteer collective that sends donated books to people in prison, receives hundreds of requests each week for everything from “dictionaries to novels to cultural histories to medical texts.” In two public letters, the group asked higher-ups to reconsider the program, writing that “too many people to count have described how reading has helped them to learn, grow, or at least endure their incarceration.”
After the lack of books drew media attention, DOCCS announced a sixth vendor that offered a wider book selection, but selection remained limited to what vendors opted to stock.
In one of the pilot prisons, Green Haven Correctional Facility, incarcerated people carried out several days of protests. At meal time, participants took a single spoon and no food, and proceeded to sit in silence. People also refused to go to yard for recreation, and for an entire weekend, no one left their housing blocks except for religious services and mandatory programming.
“People who have been in the system for a long time were saying they had never experienced anything like that,” said Hsu. “People of all different races and persuasions getting together and supporting each other. That was totally new and a very uplifting, hopeful moment for them.”
On the outside, family members sent postcards to Governor Cuomo and DOCCS, and advocacy organizations spread the word through fact sheets and social media. Their efforts drew coverage from publications like the New York Times and New Yorker, and caught the attention of state legislators.
“We implore you to end this pilot program immediately,” wrote 18 members of the New York State Assembly in a letter to DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci. “While drugs and other contraband may be coming in through the package room, the vast number of packages do not contain contraband.”
“It was a huge cost to the inmates’ families,” says Assemblyman David Weprin, Chair of the Committee on Corrections, “It also limited specialty items. It limited kosher and halal food, which families were providing. I heard from more advocates on this issue than I had on many, many issues.”
Just ten days after going into effect, Governor Cuomo tweeted: “I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipment of books & care packages to inmates. Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.” In an emailed statement to DAME, DOCCS echoed that “concerns have been raised by families of inmates regarding the availability and price of products under this program, concerns we do not take lightly.”
Cuomo’s office has not responded to questions from DAME about what prompted the cancellation. But it does fit with other items on the governor’s agenda. In his recent State of the State Address, he proposed eliminating cash bail for minor crimes and closing 1,200 solitary confinement beds throughout New York.
DOCCS’s goal of limiting the flow of drugs and contraband is understandable. Drugs like Suboxone, a methadone alternative that some users abuse, can be smuggled in packages and letters. But there are other routes for contraband: A legislative analysis of smuggled cell phones in California prisons pointed to guards as the main source.
And there may be more privatization battles on the horizon. In a New York Assembly Joint Budget hearing on January 30, Commissioner Annucci announced plans to start electronically processing financial deposits from family members, instead of accepting checks and money orders. Private companies like JPay charge fees as high as 45 percent on some transactions in some states. Annucci also said New York will begin issuing release funds on prepaid debit cards, instead of cash or checks. These cards often come with predatory maintenance fees, as well as fees on transactions and ATM withdrawals.
Representatives from Legal Aid and Books Through Bars said their organizations are working to make sure the secure vendor package policy doesn’t return, possibly by codifying prisoners’ right to receive books and food into law.
Neither DOCCS nor Cuomo’s office answered questions from DAME about whether a secure vendor program will be reintroduced.
And while expensive soap and limited reading materials may sound like small problems, they cause real difficulties for incarcerated people and their families. Privatized services remove any semblance of compassion from prison systems, forsaking rehabilitation and public safety concerns for financial gain.
“I think the voice of the people is going to be heard on this issue,” said Hsu. “The prison system and the government have signaled that they are willing to listen. I hope that they will come to the right decision on their own. But if they don’t, we will be here. And this is not a fight we anticipate stopping.”
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