This week, Christopher Garcia, a thirty-two-year-old who lives in
Brooklyn, ordered a belated Christmas present for his father. He chose
two books on Amazon: “The Grand Design,” by Stephen Hawking, and
“Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity,” by Carlo Rovelli, and sent them
to the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, in Wallkill, New York. His
father, Edwin, an avid reader of science fiction, was convicted of
robbery in 1995. In the past year, Garcia has sent his father about ten
books. They take a few extra days to reach their destination because of
careful inspections. “Books are everything,” Garcia told me. “My dad
hasn’t seen a smartphone—he doesn’t have access to anything, beyond
books.”

Yesterday, Garcia learned that he will soon lose the ability to send his
father books. This fall, New York correctional institutions plan to
eliminate package delivery for inmates, with the exception of items
ordered from a short list of approved prison venders. Six venders have
been approved so far, among them Walkenhorst and J.L. Marcus, companies
that sell items such as tennis shoes and electronics through mail-order
catalogues; two more will be added soon. (The policy has already taken
effect in a pilot program at three New York prisons: Greene, Green
Haven, and Taconic.) The package ban applies not only to clothes, fresh
food, and household items but also to reading materials, which has
prompted critics to accuse the New York Department of Corrections and
Community Supervision, or DOCCS, of censorship. Several observers
pointed out that
the initial five approved venders offered fewer than a hundred books for sale,
two dozen of which are coloring books. “Why would they eliminate books?” Garcia
asked. “It’s bureaucracy clashing with humanity.”

When I contacted the New York prison system for a comment, a DOCCS spokesperson, Tom Mailey, confirmed that, under the new policy,
prisoners will lose access to new and used book shipments from
unapproved mail catalogues and online retailers, as well as family
members. He referred me to the acting commissioner of DOCCS, Anthony J.
Annucci, who said in a phone interview that inmates “will continue to
have the ability to buy books—from the venders.” DOCCS recently approved
a sixth vender, Music by Mail, which offers tens of thousands of titles.
(The New York Public Library system, by comparison, has tens of
millions.) Under Directive No. 4911A, Annucci added, prisoners will
still have access to prison libraries and an interlibrary-loan program.
Mailey suggested that friends and family members donate to prison
libraries, by way of nonprofits such as
Books Through Bars, instead of sending books to individual prisoners. In a statement, the New York chapter of Books
Through Bars
condemned the policy; one volunteer threatened a lawsuit if the
directive is not rescinded.

I asked Michael Shane Hale, an inmate at Sing Sing serving fifty years
to life for a murder conviction, how the new policy will affect him.
“It’s already difficult to get books as it is,” he told me over the
phone. “It’s almost like they’re barring books without actually having
to bar them.” Hale is enrolled in a prison education program, and for a
recent Chinese class he was expected to buy a textbook for sixty
dollars. (A good wage in a New York prison is about twenty-five cents an
hour.) Some of his professors require eight sources in the research
papers they assign. Inmates do not have access to the Internet.

Hale learned about the new directive several months ago, in a memo
circulated to prisoners. “In the memo they posted, they said it wouldn’t
affect books,” he told me. He said that the package restrictions were
later expanded. The prison library, which he described as crowded and
understocked, can’t replace his current access to books, he said. “When
you go to the general library, you’re basically competing for books with
a thousand other people.”

Last March, when DOCCS announced its intention to switch over to private venders, it cited a range of
reasons: “to maximize the availability of food and sundry packages,” “to
have vendors offer a variety of items at competitive pricing,” and to
maintain “high security” and “an efficient operation.” But Annucci told
me that the decision was first and foremost about
contraband—particularly, the smuggling of illegal drugs, such as heroin
cut with fentanyl and synthetic marijuana. “It’s not just about getting
high. Inmates are dying,” Annucci said.

Bianca Tylek, a prison advocate who founded the Corrections
Accountability Project, questioned the effectiveness of restricting mail
in the fight against illegal drugs. “Improving hiring, training, and
oversight for staff would do far more to reduce the introduction of
contraband than limiting prisoner packages,” she told me.

Annucci acknowledged that, at times, prison staff have helped smuggle
contraband into prisons. He told me, “The majority of staff are honest;
they do a good job. But some number of a workforce of twenty-nine
thousand will compromise themselves. And I want to send the strongest
possible message of deterrence, to catch them, hold them fully
accountable, and criminally prosecute them when warranted.” Tom Mailey, the DOCCS spokesperson, said that he does not keep statistics on contraband
found in books, but described a sixty-four-per-cent increase in
package-room contraband between 2013 and 2017.

The restrictions on prisoners’ book purchases could nonetheless leave
DOCCS vulnerable to lawsuits. “If they actually persist in this policy,
I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they are sued and the policy
is found to be unconstitutional,” Paul Wright, who founded Prison Legal
News during a seventeen-year stint in prison, told me. Prisons can
legally contract with private venders, but they must uphold the First
Amendment right to free speech. “Books are protected by the
Constitution, while tennis shoes aren’t,” Wright said. Annucci seemed
unconcerned. “If I were afraid of getting sued, then I’m in the wrong
line of work, because people sue me all the time,” he said. “This is not
at all an infringement on anyone’s First Amendment rights.”

Many prison systems have reversed similar policies in response to public
outcry, Wright noted—just yesterday, a ban in New Jersey prisons on the book “The New Jim
Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, was lifted after
the A.C.L.U. of New
Jersey
wrote to the state’s corrections commissioner, Gary M. Lanigan. “This is
a pilot program,” Annucci said. “We are doing it so we can learn, and we
can see if any adjustments are necessary.” But, according to Wright,
states often have powerful financial incentives, in the form of staff
reductions or “kickbacks,” to partner with prison contractors. DOCCS said that it does not receive commissions from venders, although this
directive does reduce the
labor required to process packages.

Robert Rose, a Sing Sing inmate who is serving twenty-five years to life
for murder, said that a family member recently sent him “Anger,” by the
Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, purchased on Amazon. The Web site
allows Rose’s family to order books for him and send him the bill, which
he can then pay for through his prison disbursement account.” In response to questions I sent him through Bianca Tylek, he told me, “I
usually take a few hours a day to read.” Rose is allowed to keep a
maximum of twenty-five books in his cell, and likes to sit on his bed
and read when his unit is quiet, either early in the morning or late at
night. Books help reconnect him to society, he said. He just finished
“Design Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life,” by Bill
Burnett and Dave Evans, a 2016 book that is supposed to prepare readers
for making decisions in their education and career. Rose had a different
goal. “I was using it to prepare for release,” he said.