Bad News For Incarcerated New Yorkers Is Great News For Prison Businesses

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Because people in prison don’t have it bad enough (and companies that profit off the prison industry can’t get enough money), New York State has started restricting families from giving care packages to incarcerated people unless they buy them from approved vendors. Directive 4911A, a pilot program that went into effect January 2 at three correctional facilities, restricts the items people are allowed to send inmates only to what is available from a short list of approved vendors, whose selection is limited and expensive.

The justification for the new program, which may be extended to all state prisons in the fall, is that it will increase prison safety by cutting back on contraband. With a few exceptions, anything sent to the incarcerated must be done through six approved vendors, who stand to make quite a profit off of a literally captive audience. There’s no competition to motivate companies to reduce their prices, so they don’t. A package of Oreos, for instance, cost about $6 — twice as much as they generally cost on the outside.

This makes for brisk business for the approved vendors, but is an increased cost and burden on the families of the nearly 60,000 people in New York prisons if the pilot program is expanded across the state. It also makes it that much harder for families who don’t have access to the internet, bank accounts, or credit cards to purchase these items.

4911A limits inmates’ access to fresh food, as none of the current approved vendors offer it and prisons may not provide any. The directive also limits books that inmates can read to edify themselves and help pass the time. Books Through Bars, a group dedicated to gifting books to inmates, noted the potential negative impact, as recidivism rates are inversely proportional to a person’s level of education. The new policy also prohibits Books Through Bars and nonprofits like it from sending free books to prisoners, limiting their reading selection to whatever their families can afford and what the vendors and prison libraries provide.

Prisoners’ rights and advocacy groups are speaking out against the plan, including the Alliance of Families for Justice, which called the directive “pro-business and anti-family” — a statement that is true for many prison policies nationwide. The price of phone calls can be astronomical, as high as $14 a minute. Some states charge families for visits. Others charge inmates for medical services. In some extreme cases, ex-prisoners can even be billed for the cost of their sentence. On top of this, the incarcerated can be exploited by businesses, which pay sweatshop rates for what can be compulsory labor.

New York’s new directive comes on the heels of Governor Cuomo’s announcement that he would limit visiting hours in all 17 of New York’s maximum security prisons as a cost-saving measure. With decisions like these, New York State seems to be prioritizing the punishment of inmates over their rehabilitation.