Governor Mario Cuomo has ordered the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in New York State to halt — at least temporarily — a policy which went into effect ten days earlier. The policy restricted the sources for items delivered to inmates.
I’ve never been in a prison, either as an inmate or as a visitor. I have no personal experience with the frustrating and humiliating roadblocks people must navigate in those places. However, adults should have enough experience in life (and some basic book smarts) to see when concrete policy isn’t the answer to a complicated human problem.
A New York Times article by Vivian Wang appears below. Please note that the sixth paragraph of the article refers to inflated prices on basic merchandise, such as cookies and tee shirts. Those prices are charged by vendors who were awarded exclusive contracts to ship merchandise to inmates. This now-suspended security rule was lucrative for any business fortunate enough to have a contract.
If you’ve read much about prisons, you know inmates have nearly limitless means for circumventing anti-contraband rules. They can sharpen the handle of a spoon to make a “shiv.” They can also terrorize some prison workers into smuggling forbidden items into the prison. Perhaps those security lapses are left alone (most of the time) because no one has found the answer. An infirmary nurse whose children have been threatened is not likely to refuse to cooperate with gang members, although the nurse will be prosecuted if caught.
Some people may have supported the New York State vendor rule in good faith. However, it seems unlikely the hardship caused by this policy will curb the problem it supposedly addresses. Weapons, drugs, cell phones and other items that don’t belong in prison will still be there. When criminals are determined enough, they aren’t undermined when one tool is taken away from them. They just rely more heavily on other sources.
Do the restrictions encourage some inmates to develop stronger criminal mentalities? We can be sure that tough rules work to the disadvantage of prisoners who are trying to serve their sentences quietly and avoid trouble because those people will lose comfort and assistance from outside the system.
This blog post includes a Twitter screenshot (posted yesterday) of one of the strongest arguments against limiting some items, particularly books. Reading material helped Chelsea Manning survive seven years of hell.
When I saw Ms. Manning’s post, one of the first things that occurred to me was to be grateful she was mentally capable of reading during that time. Some of us, when we’re traumatized, can’t focus on the printed word. For inmates who can’t read in prison — because of illiteracy, trauma, distractions or something else — there should at least be comfort food. Make that reasonably priced comfort food.