ALBANY, NY — As part of an effort to keep illegal drugs and other contraband out of state prisons, New York is cutting one of life’s few pleasures behind bars: it will no longer allow people to send care packages to detainees from their homes.
Under the new policy, which the state began implementing last month, friends and family are not allowed to deliver packages in person during prison visits. They will also not be allowed to send mailboxes containing gifts, unless these come directly from third-party suppliers.
Although the rule does not prevent prisoners from obtaining items that can be ordered online, such as a Snickers bar or a bag of Doritos, they will lose access to foods such as home-cooked meals or homemade cookies. mother.
It’s a disappointment for people like Caroline Hansen, who for 10 years hand-delivered packages full of fresh vegetables, fruits and meats to her husband, who is serving a life sentence.
“When I started bringing him packages, he said he loved avocados. He hadn’t had one for about 20 years,” said Hansen, a single mother of two who works as a waitress at Long Island.
“What breaks my heart is that I take for granted to have a banana with my yogurt. Imagine never being able to eat a banana? she added, claiming that her husband’s prison cafeteria serves bananas once a month, maximum.
New York was one of the few states in the country that still allowed families to send packages to inmates from their homes. The rule is already in effect in the majority of state prisons.
Starting this month, the state prison system is also testing a program in which inmates will not be able to receive most letters sent on paper. Instead, incoming letters will be scanned by computer and prisoners given copies.
The change is underway in an attempt to counter the tendency for people to dip letters in drugs to smuggle them through the authorities. Several states, including Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, already photocopy incoming mail to prevent the delivery of drugs to inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons started a similar practice in 2019.
The New York City Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in a statement that the two new policies are necessary to stop contraband.
Contraband was smuggled into prisons in several ways: books containing heroin, weapons and unauthorized electronics like phones hidden in packages, and mail soaked in drugs like methamphetamine or a cannabinoid synthetic, also known as K2.
When packages are received by a prison, officers take the items out of the box to inspect them visually or using an X-ray machine. If there is reason to suspect, officers are authorized to open packages sealed for further inspection.
These checks, however, are not perfect and the authorities believe that objects pass.
Critics of the package ban have questioned its effectiveness, noting that banned items are sometimes brought in by corrupt prison staff.
California stopped allowing people to send packages directly to inmates in 2003. Instead, inmates and families can order items through a list of approved vendors provided by the state. In Florida, families are also not allowed to send packages from home.
Prisoner advocates and inmates’ families say the forfeit policy is too restrictive – and an additional financial burden.
Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, called prison food a “nutritional nightmare” and said some incarcerated people rely on care packages to maintain a healthy diet.
Relatives of inmates often rely on private vendors like Walkenhorst and Jack L. Marcus Company, who specialize in sending licensed merchandise to prisoners, but items purchased from third-party vendors can be more expensive.
Prior to his release from Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, former prisoner Wilfredo Laracuente said he was able to order a 35-pound (16-kilogram) package for himself containing wrapped cakes, cookies, crisps , soaps, shampoo and toiletries.
It cost $230 – the kind of money most prisoners don’t have.
“It will be the beginning of the end, where they shut down everything under the guise of security and smuggling,” said Laracuente, who served two decades in prison for murder and now runs workshops that help recently released inmates reintegrate into the society. “What they are doing is removing the human component which is very vital and necessary for the re-entry process.”
Even before the ban, families often complained that sending parcels was unreliable.
Angelica Watson, whose husband and brother are both incarcerated, said she had tried to send them packages every month but food items did not always arrive before spoiling.
“Most were non-perishable items,” said Watson, who lives in Buffalo. “I tried to make fresh, but it wasn’t a good idea because they kept it in their storage rooms and it would go bad.”
Hansen, whose husband is serving time for killing a taxi driver, said having to order goods from vendors who charge “ridiculous prices” was no solution to the smuggling problem.
“My husband basically thinks it’s just one more way to deprive him of his basic necessities,” Hansen said.
More than 60 inmate families have sent letters of protest to New York Assemblyman David Weprin, Democratic chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections. Weprin criticized the new policy.
The package restriction was first introduced in 2018 as part of a pilot program at three state prisons, where families could only send packages through a list of six pre-approved online providers. It was quickly canceled by then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, due to backlash and public criticism.
Maysoon Khan is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter.