Each month, Daniel McGowan spends hours in a dusty Red Hook cellar selecting books from a curious library organized in milk crates. He wraps the books carefully in craft paper and discarded brown bags before sending them to people in prisons across the country. The recipients have mailed in title or genre requests to Books Through Bars, a volunteer-run collective that does its best to meet them.
For McGowan, a New York native and self-described bibliophile, the volunteer work is personal. Before his release in 2012, McGowan spent seven years in federal prison on terrorism charges for his role in fires set by environmental activists at two Oregon lumber companies. His sentence was served in New York, Minnesota, and Indiana, and to pass much of that time, McGowan turned to books.
“Reading was a huge part of my incarceration,” he says. But his access to literature through packages mailed by family, friends, and community members, and through books he was able to purchase with money he had set aside, was somewhat atypical among most of the people he was locked up with.
“Most people didn’t have excess money” for books, McGowan says. “They were fighting their cases or were the primary breadwinners of their family.”
That economic reality was reflected in the recent controversy over a new pilot policy introduced by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that would severely limit prisoners’ access to books. The rule would have required all prisoners and their family members to send packages only through six approved vendors, which offer limited selection; organizations like Books Through Bars, and any prisoner who couldn’t afford to buy their own books, would be out of luck. Following an onslaught of pushback from New Yorkers concerned that the policy would effectively ban most books, Governor Andrew Cuomo temporarily halted the directive, earning accolades from advocates and the media alike.
It was a well-timed move for Cuomo, who is attempting to cast a more progressive light on his centrist political record, possibly in preparation for an eventual presidential run. But the praise overlooks something sinister: A bizarre policy similar to the one Cuomo shot down still effectively bans free books, and has done so for years, in some cases decades, for up to 13,000 inmates in at least nine state prisons.
These prisons are called “TV facilities.” At some point in the past, prisoners at each of them were instructed by state correction officials to vote by secret ballot on the option to buy personal TVs for their cells. If the vote passed, the TVs then had to be purchased from the prison commissary or an approved vendor, at a cost of more than $100 apiece.
The TVs come with an additional cost: In exchange for the “right” to buy a TV, prisoners are allowed to receive only two personal packages per year, which cannot contain anything besides food. Any other packages have to be purchased by inmates with their own money, if they have any, from approved vendors. In other words, definitely no free books. And the vote is treated as irreversible, meaning if you get locked up tomorrow, your access to free books could be obstructed by a decades-old decision you had no part in.
At the time of this article’s publication, DOCCS official Patrick Bailey could not confirm when the policy was introduced or in which facility, though a lawsuit filed last year says it dates back to the mid-1980s.
The TV policy is applied haphazardly, making it difficult for family members and organizations to know where they can and can’t send packages. Elmira Correctional Facility, for example, is on the official DOCCS TV facility list, but McGowan has successfully sent books there. Other prisons, including non-TV facilities, seem to reject and accept books at random, according to public defender Ben Schatz, who runs a separate, newer book program for state prisoners out of the Center for Appellate Litigation in Manhattan.
“Half the time if you call these facilities to ask about packages, they say they have no idea, ‘just try and send it,’ ” says Schatz. “There’s no question that the TV facility [policy] is just some bizarre, sui generis thing that somebody made up.”
The goal of both the TV policy and the pilot program rescinded by Cuomo, according to DOCCS spokesperson Thomas Mailey, is to make facilities “safer for inmates and staff,” as he says they face “growing issues with drugs and weapons” entering prisons by mail. Last week, DOCCS announced that the number of incidents involving contraband had more than doubled over the last decade. The union representing correction officers has repeatedly called for stricter measures to prevent contraband from entering prisons, and criticized Cuomo’s choice to halt the pilot book-restriction program last month.
Yet correction officers themselves are often conduits for contraband. As recently as November, a DOCCS correction officer at a prison in the Oneida County town of Marcy was arrested for trying to smuggle in drugs.
Correction officials also argue that access to books is scarcely hindered by these policies, because most prisoners can access both a prison library and an inter-library loan system. But both of those options tend to fall short in practice. The inter-library loan system relies on local libraries, which may also lack a wide selection of books. McGowan says when he used the inter-library loan system while incarcerated, roughly one out of every six book requests would be granted.
“Prisons are in rural areas that skew heavily white and heavily conservative, so the population of books you actually have are really homogenous,” adds McGowan.
Access to free literature and educational materials in prison provides more than just a way for inmates to pass the time. Reading and educational programs have been shown to reduce recidivism, the rate at which people return to corrections custody after being released. Understandably, that’s a concern of both DOCCS and Cuomo, given the human and fiscal costs of incarceration: The most recent DOCCS recidivism data, from 2014, shows 42 percent of prisoners released in 2011 were returned to state custody within three years of their release. (The majority of those returns were due to parole violations, rather than new felony offenses.) Last week, DOCCS announced it would begin providing free electronic tablets to state prisoners containing some educational materials and e-books. But the vast majority of e-books, music, and email services on those tablets will still come at a cost to the prisoners.
The existence of TV facilities remains largely unpublicized, even to those in the criminal justice reform sphere. DOCCS officials themselves seem unsure of its inner workings: While both Mailey and fellow DOCCS spokesperson Patrick Bailey emphasized more than once to the Voice that “the inmates vote on this,” when pressed on the details of the voting procedure and its irreversible outcome, Bailey acknowledged that he didn’t actually know how often the secret ballot process takes place, but confirmed it definitely doesn’t happen annually.
(At the time of publication, Cuomo’s office had not replied to multiple requests for comment on the TV facility policy.)
At least for now, prisoners in non-TV facilities can still receive packages from people like McGowan and Schatz. But the barred pilot policy is likely to return after the dust settles. A coalition of legal service and community-based organizations are already pushing back against what they see as its inevitable return.
Cuomo has tried to position himself as a proponent of criminal justice reform, particularly in his call for changes in the system of cash bail, which he noted disproportionately impacts low-income New Yorkers and people of color. He went on to opine in the Times about his vision for “a more just New York State,” the need to protect due process for the poor, and his support for reform of the state’s controversial discovery law, which currently favors prosecutors over defendants.
Yet Cuomo also kicked off 2017 by vetoing two criminal justice reform bills, one of which would have helped New Yorkers — particularly low-income people of color — avoid needless contact with the criminal justice system by reforming the state’s “gravity knife” ban, while the other would have afforded better legal representation to those ensnared in it.
In 2015, Cuomo took a trip upstate for a heavily documented tour of one of the nine TV prisons, Clinton Correctional Facility, to trace the escape route of prisoners David Sweat and Richard Matt from the state’s largest maximum-security facility. The excursion made for a great photo op: The governor peered into manholes with a furrowed brow; shimmied up a dusty, dimly lit ladder; and shined a flashlight into an escape hole. Video of the tour captures Cuomo peering between the bars of the cell next to that of the escapee who had used power tools to bore an opening in the wall under his bed, glibly musing to its occupant that the getaway “must’ve kept you awake with all that cuttin’, huh?”
Perhaps if the governor had paused a bit longer, or asked questions of the prisoner next door that weren’t thinly veiled accusations, he would have learned that the nearly 3,000 people incarcerated at Clinton are subject to a byzantine policy that limits their access to books. One of those Clinton prisoners, Jeremy Zielinski, was so troubled by the restrictions the rule placed on his access to reading material that he filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality last year. The case is now pending before a federal judge.
Cuomo’s call to rescind the new package policy is a temporary win for some prisoners, but not for the 13,000 people locked up in places like Clinton. And in failing to address DOCCS’ TV prisons policy, Cuomo is missing an obvious opportunity to provide educational resources proven to reduce recidivism to a population that is largely indigent — at virtually no cost to his state’s precious budget.
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