Despite the recent suspension of a directive that would have prevented individuals from sending books directly to New York State prisoners, as well as the reversal of a New Jersey ban on Michelle Alexander's bestselling The New Jim Crow, advocates for prison inmates remain concerned about restrictions on books available to prisoners.
Earlier this month, citing public concerns, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended the implementation of New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision directive 4911A, which would have blocked inmates from receiving packages from anyone other than six commercial vendors designated by the state. The DOCCS says that the provision was designed to prevent contraband from being smuggled into prisons. Critics of the directive say it would have prohibited books, food, and clothing from being shipped directly to prisoners from family and other outside supporters.
The 4911A directive was being tested at three prisons in New York, with an eye toward statewide implementation. According to the New York Times, a DOCCS spokesperson said the program was suspended because of concerns expressed by inmates’ families about the availability and pricing of items offered through the vendor program.
Melissa Marturano, a professor at Hunter College and a member of NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer group that donates free books to prison inmates around the country, said in a statement that NYC BTB “cautiously welcomes the news that the governor’s office has ordered the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to suspend the pilot package ban under directive 4911A.” The statement noted that the organization remains concerned that the state “is regrouping and will be announcing a directive with a new and improved vendors program.”
According to the statement, NYC BTB “condemns the use of any vendors and any restrictions on prisoner’s access to education, reading, food and more.” It continued: “The use of such vendors fundamentally misunderstands the material and impoverished conditions of prisoners and their communities and support networks outside prisons. Prisoners need access to more free and quality books, food, and clothing.”
NYC Books Through Bars (and prisoner literacy advocates such as PEN America) rallied support by issuing warnings about the DOCCS directive. In early January, the organization sent a letter registering “strong objections to directive 4911A” to Cuomo and Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner of the DOCCS. The letter stated that, under the now-suspended directive, “groups like ours are no longer able to send free reading materials to those incarcerated in the affected facilities.”
Marturano said that the directive would have limited incarcerated people to “a few dozen books and magazines, purchased at a premium.” The inventories of the approved vendors, she added, were limited to romance novels, Bibles and religious texts, coloring and puzzle books, and assorted how-to titles.
According to the NYC BTB statement, there were “no books that help people learn to overcome addictions or learn how to improve as parents. No Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or other literature that helps people connect with what it means to be human. There are no books by African-American intellectuals or left thinkers like Howard Zinn. There is no Latino history.”
New York State countered that inmates can use prison libraries, but Marturano rejected that option, explaining that prison library facilities located in Upstate New York’s typically conservative white communities don’t reflect the needs and interests of African-American and Hispanic inmate communities.
During the same period in January when the NYC BTB was challenging the implementation of the DOCCS directive, the New Jersey Department of Corrections reversed controversial bans at two New Jersey prisons on The New Jim Crow after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. Alexander’s book examines institutionalized racial bias against African-Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system; the New Jersey ACLU’s letter stated that it is “an important work on the endemic racial bias of prison systems in the United States” and described the ban on it as a violation of the First Amendment.
Media attention and the subsequent public outcry against the ban has focused attention on the dearth of quality reading material available to inmates in the prison system.
Marturano explained that NYC BTB supplies books directly to prisoners in corrections facilities, not to prison libraries, which she described as poorly stocked, understaffed, and overwhelmed by demand. “The state has failed its prisoners,” she said. NYC BTB ships more than 700 packages per month (most containing at least two books) to prisoners in 40 states, though primarily to inmates in New York, California, and Texas prisons. Books are donated to the group (some of them by publishers).
According to Marturano, about 30 states have implemented vendor programs, though not all prohibit sending books.
“New York was liberal compared to a state like Texas,” Marturano said. “But now it’s following the other 30 states and becoming more restrictive. We don’t want vendors profiting off the misery of prisoners.”
New Press publisher Ellen Adler, which published The New Jim Crow in 2010, said bans such as the one at the two New Jersey prisons and restrictive prison vendor programs are not unusual. The New Jim Crow, she said, “has been subject to prison bans since it was first published,” adding, “It’s been a game of whack-a-mole, working prison to prison to get the book to prisoners.”
Indeed, Adler said that some states, including Texas, have arbitrarily banned a vast number of titles in their prisons. In response, the New Press works in conjunction with prison advocates around the country to supply special editions of its books to prisoners. The New Press has teamed with one of its authors, Susan Burton, a former inmate, and received funding from a combination of foundations and private funders to produce an 11,000-copy special edition of Burton’s 2017 memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, which will be distributed exclusively to prisons around the country.
Adler praised the work of organizations like NYC BTB and Chicago Books to Women in Prison, which is a national program despite its name, in providing a variety of books to prisoners in state and federal institutions. She called the suspended New York DOCCS directive “painfully stupid and wrong,” noting that “not only is it unconstitutional”—referring to violations of the prisoners’ First Amendment protections—but “it is also morally reprehensible to try to strip incarcerated people of their humanity and limit what they can read in an entirely arbitrary and capricious manner.” She added, “Books have the power to teach and inspire and help people rebuild their lives—who could possibly object to that?”
Corrections: in an earlier version of this story the name of the author of The New Jim Crow was incorrect and the sources of funding for the special edition of Becoming Ms. Burton were also incorrectly identified.