- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2018

The governor of New York has canceled a controversial pilot program that drastically limited the types of books and care packages that could be mailed to state prisoners.

“I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipment of books & care packages to inmates,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo tweeted Friday.

“Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband,” said Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat.

Launched 10 days earlier, the program, Directive 4911A, stated that prisoners could only receive books and packages purchased through any of just six online vendors, significantly narrowing the scope of materials received by inmates.

Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state corrections department, said in a subsequent statement that “concerns have been raised by families of inmates regarding the availability and price of products under this program, concerns we do not take lightly.”

“In the meantime, we will redouble our efforts on the other parts of our multi-faceted plan to eliminate contraband and increase safety in our prison system,” Mr. Mailey said.

Proponents of the directive argued the restrictions would curb the flow of contraband into state prisons, but critics including criminal justice reform advocates and the relatives of inmates said it drastically limited prisoners’ access to items ranging from fresh produce and clothing, to reading materials and other items not necessarily available behind bars.

Indeed, The New York Times previously reported that five of the six approved vendors offered a total of just 77 books, including five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, a dictionary and a thesaurus.

A lack of vendors “results in price-gouging, creates anger and fosters hopelessness in already volatile prisons, and interferes with their ability to maintain meaningful relations with the community back home,” said Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society, a group that opposed the directive.

“Albany heard loud and clear from our incarcerated clients, their impacted family members, defender organizations, small businesses and others that this directive was wrongheaded and punitive,” she said, New York Daily News reported.

“We welcome Governor Cuomo’s announcement, and his recognition that Directive 4911A is bad policy,” added Summer Lopez, the senior director of Free Expression Programs for PEN America, a freedom of expression group. “We hope that Governor Cuomo, as well as officials within the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, will take this moment to evaluate how New York can design and implement policies intended to expand, rather than restrict, inmates’ access to publications. Upholding inmates’ right to read should be at the center of any prison policy around literature and other written materials.”

The pilot program had been in effect within only thee state prisons –  the Greene, Green Haven and Taconic correctional facilities – prior to being rescinded this week. Similar systems are in place in nearly 30 other states, according to Mr. Mailey.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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