On a freezing Monday night, a dozen New Yorkers gathered in the basement of a used bookstore. Thick stacks of letters from prisoners all over the country were piled on a worn wooden table. “I read sometimes 2-3 books a day in here, with nothing else to do,” one inmate, who had requested books by Tom Clancy and Robert Jordan, had written. Another wanted to read about anti-gravitational propulsion and how to “unlock our ‘Third Eye,’” among a wide range of subjects. “I try to read everything I can about science to occupy my mind/manage my stress, but I’ve noticed there aren’t many science books at the library here,” he’d observed. “Reading is very strong in my cell,” wrote a third, who asked for anything related to spaceships, pirates, knights or fantasy.
Lisa Davidson, a professor of linguistics at NYU and a volunteer with Books Through Bars, a group that has sent close to 100,000 books to inmates in 40 states since 1996, scrutinized the fantasy shelf. Two to three nights a week, members gather to read letters, select books, and mail them off. “If I were in prison I would really want a service like this too,” Davidson said, fingering the spine of A Crown of Swords, the seventh book from Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. “It’s so uncontroversial,” she continued. “Everyone supports education and reading books. Who doesn’t want that? So why would you restrict access to this thing that’s universally considered a positive?”
As Davidson, and her fellow volunteers at Books Through Bars, see it, that’s exactly what the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has done. As the result of a policy rolled out last month, inmates can only receive packages from a list of six Department of Corrections–approved vendors. Despite its 22 years of operation, and a stellar record, Books Through Bars was not included among the approved vendors, nor were any other of the similar programs that operate throughout the country. Under the new rule, inmates’ families will also be banned from sending packages of any sort — not only books, but also fresh fruits and vegetables. The department says the policy, which is currently a pilot program at just three correctional facilities, was put in place to prevent contraband from entering prisons.
“I’ve had a serious escalation in the number of drug overdoses in the last few years, so this literally is a matter of health and well-being and safety,” Anthony J. Annucci, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision acting commissioner, told Vulture. “Anything that can come in from a non-approved vendor obviously raises that risk. My job is to make sure every inmate, when they are released, is released safe and healthy and returned to their family.”
Although the DOCCS doesn’t track how much contraband comes in through books specifically, Annucci said that between 2013 and 2017, contraband coming in through the package room increased by 64 percent. He disputed the notion that the new policy will limit inmates’ access to books, explaining that the prison libraries should be able to accommodate any inmate requests, and if that fails, inmates can go to one of the approved vendors and order directly from there.
Keri Blakinger, a reporter at the Houston Chronicle who served two years in one of the prisons participating in the new pilot program, is skeptical about the new program. When she was locked up, she read about 30 books a month, and she estimates that she found only a quarter of them in her prison library. Even the best-stocked prison library won’t let inmates keep books indefinitely. The books that proved the most important to Blakinger were the ones that she was sent from the outside and, therefore, allowed to keep. “There are books I read again and again, poetry I zeroed in on. I read Invictus for the first time in prison. I read it again and again to remind myself that I could make it through everything, through solitary confinement, though medical problems, through not being there for all the joys and sorrows my friends and family were going through on the outside,” Blakinger wrote in an email. “Some people like to read Bibles or 12-step books daily. For me it was poetry, it was crosswords, it was Infinite Jest, it was No Horizon Is So Far. I was able to read from them daily because I was allowed to keep them in my cell.”
Pollack said that many of the books inmates request most often are best sellers everywhere: Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The New Jim Crow is popular, as is The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The approved vendors in the pilot program have a decent selection of books, but they’re not free, as they are when requested from Books Through Bars. (The first five vendors in the program had a paltry selection that mostly consisted of coloring books, romance novels, and puzzles; the department has since added a sixth vendor with a wider array of novels and nonfiction.) The first 12 books of the Wheel of Time series, for example, are available on one of the approved vendor sites for a total of $79.96. According to Caroline Hsu, a staff attorney with Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, a price like that would be prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of inmates. “People in prison make cents on the hour,” she said. “The question is, how much time and how many hoops does a person have to jump through to get the book that they want? How many barriers are there before it becomes not really access at all?”
Hsu added that Legal Aid is “currently assessing whether or not we need to go to court” over the new policy. “People have the right to read,” she said.
At Books Through Bars, the volunteers often receive letters that are stamped with the word “indigent,” which means that the inmate sending the letter couldn’t afford their own stamp. “Offering to sell books for ten bucks a pop doesn’t help when people are not able to afford 47 cents for posting a letter,” said Seth Pollack, a Books Through Bars volunteer, while weighing a pair of zombie titles on a scale. (Most prisons place restrictions on the weight of packages coming in.)
On Tuesday night, Books Through Bars received their first letter from a facility in the pilot program that they won’t be able to fill. “I recently got in touch with someone from the New York Public Library,” the inmate wrote. “The person told me to write to you.” He was hoping to find a copy of Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979 to 1984. “I really hope you have it.”
Update: On Friday, Governor Cuomo directed the Department of Corrections to rescind the “flawed” program. In a tweet, he said: “Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.”