Lawmakers, Judge Seek Evidence Behind Prison Package Ban

The prison agency has stonewalled lawmakers’ requests for information justifying the policy.

Rebecca McCray   ·   September 8, 2022
A cell phone and charging cable within a box of Rice Krispies found in the Greene Correctional Facility mailroom | NYSDOCCS

When New York’s prison agency announced a new directive this spring banning most packages people incarcerated in the state could receive from family and friends, Jeremy Zielinski, who is incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, went straight to the law library. Two days before a pilot of the policy began, he filed a complaint in Albany County Supreme Court challenging the package directive, which prohibits incarcerated people from receiving any food packages from family and friends and limits the number of personal packages to two per year. All other packages must be purchased and sent through approved private vendors, many known for inflated costs. 

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision maintains that the package restrictions, which were first reported by New York Focus and are now in place in all 44 prisons across the state, are a critical tool in the fight against the flow of drugs and weapons through prison mailrooms. Prior to the restrictions, such items were found in packages “every day,” a DOCCS spokesperson told New York Focus in a statement. The agency said it had found contraband in 924 packages in 2020 and 577 in the first half of 2021, compared to just 290 in 2019. 

DOCCS did not break down those numbers by type. Beyond drugs, weapons, and cell phones, “contraband” includes a lengthy list of items that aren’t allowed, such as anything with a paper, plastic, or foil seal, any snack mix including raisins, and laminated paper.

As New York has grappled with a rise in opioid overdoses and deaths across the state, so too have state prisons. Some argue the package directive could be a means of driving down drug-related mortality rates. Amy Jane Agnew, an independent criminal defense attorney who has filed dozens of lawsuits against DOCCS challenging prison conditions and practices, has lost more than one client to overdose in recent years, and thinks this may be one thing DOCCS is doing right. 

"Anything they can do to stop the flow of drugs makes sense to me," Agnew told New York Focus. "I don't know if it will save lives, but we can hope."

The quantity of drugs and weapons entering prisons through mailrooms, compared to other entry points, remains a subject of hot debate. Since launching the new directive, DOCCS has taken to Twitter to share pictures of contraband found in packages: a cell phone smashed into a Rice Krispie bar, a “green leafy substance suspected to be drugs” crammed into a tuna package.

But evidence of corrections staff bringing drugs into prisons across the country is widespread, from Florida to North Carolina to Minnesota to Georgia. Just last month, a federal corrections officer was charged with smuggling drugs and alcohol into Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, in exchange for $10,000 from people incarcerated there. In April, two New York City corrections officers were charged for bringing drugs and phones into Rikers Island in exchange for cash. When Texas officials banned most greeting cards and shut down visitation in 2020, the number of people caught with drugs in the state’s prisons actually increased, The Marshall Project reported.

Jose Ramos, a former police officer who was released in November after spending 10 years in New York City jails and four prisons upstate, contends that both avenues for contraband are real, but one outweighs the other. 

“They do receive drugs in packages,” Ramos told New York Focus. “I would say it’s common. But the bulk, the weight, is being walked in by corrections officers, it’s not coming in through packages.”

Ramos said he has observed the rise in drug overdoses in New York prisons in real time over the last decade, and empathizes with the challenge that corrections staff face. “Drugs became much more prevalent, much more available,” he said. “It’s a legitimate concern.” 

But “to stop all packages from families, that’s just terrible,” he continued. “That’s the way you could connect. It means a lot when your family sends something and you're able to touch something that came from them — to know it came from their hands means a lot.”

Some state lawmakers have voiced the same concern. “This type of directive hurts family members, it hurts relationships between incarcerated individuals and their families, and I don’t see how it adds to safety or security,” David Weprin, chair of the Assembly’s corrections committee, told New York Focus, noting that studies have illustrated that maintaining community ties during incarceration reduces recidivism. 

Weprin gathered outside Sing Sing Correctional Facility last month with members of the Sing Sing Family Collective, who operated a free farm stand that distributed fresh produce to visiting family and friends to bring to their loved ones inside the prison. The produce was a welcome supplement to the dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables available in prisons, according to currently and formerly incarcerated people. But when the package directive rolled into effect at Sing Sing in mid-August, the farm stand’s produce was no longer allowed inside with visitors. 

In May, when the package directive was announced, DOCCS officials said they planned to expand fresh produce offerings in prisons. But according to Zielinski, nearly four months after the policy went into effect, the only fruit available for purchase in the prison commissary were still $1 fruit cups and bananas, which are rarely in stock.

In early June, Weprin and his counterpart in the Senate, Julia Salazar, sent a public letter to acting DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci expressing numerous concerns about the package directive and requesting that the Prison Violence Task Force, which recommended the policy, produce a full report demonstrating that the limitations were necessary for safety. The task force is composed of prison superintendents, representatives from corrections employee unions, and other administrators. The task force also consulted with “several Incarcerated Individual Liaison Committees,” as well as “several advocacy organizations,” a DOCCS spokesperson said, but they declined to name any of the advocacy organizations they consulted.  

Three months later, Weprin and Salazar have yet to receive even an acknowledgement of receipt of the letter from DOCCS. Weprin is “not happy” about the lack of response, and told New York Focus he is considering calling a hearing before the corrections committee, which would compel DOCCS to testify and defend the directive. 

Weprin and Salazar aren’t the only ones calling for an explanation. In July, Albany County Supreme Court Judge Margaret Walsh signed an order in Zielinski’s lawsuit requiring the agency to demonstrate why the directive should remain in place while the merits of his complaint are considered by the court. They have until September 23 to respond, and declined to comment on pending litigation. 

A former member of the Incarcerated Individual Liaison Committee currently incarcerated at Attica, who asked that he not be named to prevent retaliation, said that packages have been a frequent topic of discussion during meetings with administrators since roughly 2017. The package directive is especially difficult for family members with limited means like his mother, he said.

“The hardship is on the families,” he said. “There are limited places to order from, and most of them are extremely expensive.” 

As for the contraband issue? Sure, he concedes, some drugs probably come in through mailrooms. But he doesn’t think banning packages will stem the flow of drugs into facilities.

“If you stop them from coming in one way, they’ll come in another,” he told New York Focus. “It’s like chasing a ghost.”

Rebecca McCray is a journalist based in New York. You can find her work in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Gothamist, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, Slate, and elsewhere.
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