[Pnews] Despite Cuomo Action, Thousands of Prisoners Still Denied Access to Books

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Feb 8 10:29:45 EST 2018


  Despite Cuomo Action, Thousands of Prisoners Still Denied Access to Books

    by Rebecca McCray
    <https://www.villagevoice.com/author/rebecca-mccray/>- February 7, 2018


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 
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 

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 
<https://qz.com/796369/to-decrease-recidivism-rates-give-prisoners-more-books/> and 
educational programs 
<https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR266.html>**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 
<http://www.doccs.ny.gov/FactSheets/PDF/currentfactsheet.pdf>, 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 
<https://www.wkbw.com/news/state-news/all-inmates-in-nys-prisons-to-get-free-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 
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; 
<https://www.flickr.com/photos/governorandrewcuomo/18510148776> 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 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpXoSI2mG8E> to its 
occupant that the getaway “must’ve kept you awake with all that cuttin’, 

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.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20180208/6b2a21e1/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list