New Package Restrictions at NY State Prisons Create Financial and Emotional Hardships

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), New York’s state prison agency, defends the policy as a necessary security measure to address issues associated with contraband.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Under a new policy in New York state prisons, friends and family members are no longer allowed to ship food directly to incarcerated people, or bring any kind of packages on in-person visits. Apart from two non-food packages a year, which have to be mailed, items must be ordered from online vendors willing to ship to prisons.

The policy, Directive 4911A, started in May as a pilot program in eight prisons, with eventual plans to expand to all 44 prisons in NY state.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), New York’s state prison agency, defends the policy as a necessary security measure to address issues associated with contraband. An April 25 memo from DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci says the policy will “make the system safer and aid in reducing overdoses, violence and overall rehabilitation of the population.”

For those in prison, packages from home provided both access to fresh food and an emotional connection to loved ones. Aiyuba Thomas, who was formerly incarcerated in New York state, says they offer “a piece of solace in a place of misery.”

The restrictions also add financial and logistical burdens to the already difficult shipping process. Every month for the last seven years, Kerry Gant hand-delivered 35 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to her husband serving time at Wende Correctional Facility. She rarely shipped food by mail because of the high shipping costs and likelihood of spoilage. “[My husband] likes broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and sometimes, those would be spoiled by the time they got there.”

Vendors like Access Securepak and Union Supply charge steep markups for a limited selection of food products, while many grocery stores and affordable retail vendors don’t ship fresh food to prisons at all. “I haven't sent my husband a package since this new directive because of the cost and the logistics around it,” says Gant, who is also an advocate with advocacy organization Center for Community Alternatives. She adds,“I have helped others send packages in, and the cost for a package has tripled when you add shipping.”

Family members like Gant say the new restrictions make it all but impossible for incarcerated people to access fresh food. “Now you have a situation where you've created a food desert out of what is a food desert just naturally,” says Gant. “You don't have access to what I would call ‘actual food’ in there.”

Advocates cast doubt on the purported relationship between packages and contraband.
Tyrrell Muhammad, senior advocate at watchdog organization Correctional Association of New York (CANY), says, “During the pandemic, there were no visits and very few packages, but DOCCS had an explosion in drug use." Between April 2020 and May 2021, New York state prisons saw a drastic spike in seizures of banned drugs despite a blanket ban on visitation.

Much of the contraband that makes its way into prisons comes from corrections officers and prison staff, an issue the package restrictions fail to address, according to advocates.

The changes are consistent with a larger trend toward more restrictive prison policies. “DOCCS is weaponizing food,” Muhammad says. “At one time — in the ’70s and the ’80s — family members were able to send you baked cakes, baked food, cooked food. DOCCS stopped that, and when they stopped it, they were always trying to say that contraband was coming through the packages.”

Felicia Henry, director of research and policy at CANY, says the new restrictions create a “disconnect” between family members, adding, “Intercepting methods like packages by which people connect to their family members reinforces a very restrictive environment, which impacts folks’ ability to be well in that environment.”

According to Thomas, now an NYU master’s student through the Prison Education Program, “Being in prison is debilitating on its own. You have people who are already suffering. And some people actually try to make a change. Things like this make it hard for you to change. For that exchange to be tampered with in an already dysfunctional situation, it's terrible.”