Late last Friday morning, a pleasant surprise landed in the inbox of Legal Aid attorney Caroline Hsu. It was a memo from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, issuing guidance to all staff about an exception to a directive called “Inmate Television Sets.” The policy restricts the number of personal packages prisoners can receive in nine prisons designated as “TV facilities” — in which inmates have the option to buy a personal TV set from the prison commissary — as well as the content of those packages.
The memo Hsu received instructs staff that prisoners in TV facilities are permitted to receive a variety of reading materials, in spite of other restrictions: “Staff are reminded that the limits set forth in this directive do not apply to books, magazines, and periodicals. Packages containing these printed materials are not to be counted towards the two-package limit outlined in Directive #4921.”
Just two days earlier, Hsu and her colleagues had contacted DOCCS officials to clarify the ambiguous package-restriction policy. “We told them that we thought the policy should be that books don’t count in the package limitations, and that the facilities were not implementing the policy correctly,” she says. “We were heartened by both their attentiveness to this issue and the speed with which they resolved it.”
Yet the memo itself reads less like a policy change and more like a reminder to DOCCS staff of a pre-existing rule. This “reminder” is at odds with a February 7 Village Voice investigation that found that many of the 13,000 inmates housed in these nine TV facilities have been unable to receive any packages containing books.
“If this was the policy all along, no one working at the TV facilities knew about it,” public defender Ben Schatz tells the Voice. “I have been told directly by prison officials at multiple corrections facilities that I cannot send books to my clients because the facility is a TV facility.”
The limits described by the memo, which are documented on the DOCCS website, dictate that prisoners in TV facilities can only receive two personal packages per year from “family, friends, or other personal sources” weighing up to twenty pounds, and the packages can only contain food. But the new DOCCS memo, and the department’s spokespeople, are now telling a different story.
“It’s always been the case that inmates can receive books,” Patrick Bailey, DOCCS public information officer, told the Voice on Friday. Responding to a suggestion that the policy’s language implies personal packages that don’t contain food aren’t allowed, he said, “That’s not true. The inmates and staff know that. I think you’re confused.”
“The reason for the memo, obviously, is that everybody’s reading books now,” suggests Tom Mailey, also a DOCCS public information officer. “Perhaps the inmates didn’t understand the policy before, or the staff was confused.”
These responses fly in the face of the stories of people like Schatz, whose office is full of returned packages of books. It also conflicts with the experiences of organizations like Books Through Bars, which sends free books to prisoners all over the country.
“We’ve been told time and time again through rejected books, or the [TV facility] prisoners themselves, that they cannot receive free books from the outside,” says Daniel McGowan, a Books Through Bars volunteer. “The experience of people that have tried to send books for the past ten-plus years is very real.”
Since early January, McGowan and Legal Aid’s Hsu have organized with a coalition of advocates to pressure DOCCS to change current and proposed restrictions on who can and can’t send packages to prisoners in New York State, and how many packages the prisoners can receive. Though Hsu had occasionally received complaints from prisoners at TV facilities about not being able to receive books, she says they realized while working with Books Through Bars “that far more books were being rejected for this reason than we thought.”
Following the Voice investigation, she says, “it became clear to us that the problem might be more widespread,” which spurred her to reach out to DOCCS officials.
Since the release of the memo, McGowan is cautiously optimistic, but skeptical. “I’m not confident we’re going to be able to get books into these places,” he says. Still, he is already packaging and sending books to TV facility prisons, and stands ready with the rest of the advocacy coalition to push back if they continue to be rejected.
“There was a huge underestimation of just how important these packages are to people’s sense of humanity and identity,” says Hsu. “These packages are one of the huge things that really tell our clients that they’re people and not just animals, and they’re treated like animals all the time,” says Hsu. “My clients tell me [receiving them] keeps them sane and feeling human.”
* Correction: February 26, 2018
In a previous version of this article, we stated that Caroline Hsu had asked the DOCCS to change its policy on not allowing prisoners in TV facilities to receive books. She actually contacted the DOCCS to clarify the policy’s ambiguous language. This article has been updated to reflect that.