Prison Agency Rescinds Censorship Policy After New York Focus Reporting

The policy and its sudden reversal will be among Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci’s last acts.

Chris Gelardi   ·   June 7, 2023
A gray cement wall with black marker lines on it.
New York prisons barred incarcerated creatives from publishing their work — until we reported on it. | Quinn Dombrowski via Wikimedia Commons

The New York state prison agency rescinded rules blocking incarcerated writers and artists from publishing their work Wednesday, a day after New York Focus exposed the policy.

A May 11 directive established a stringent, months-long approval process for people in New York state prisons to publish creative work — including books, art, music, poetry, film scripts, and other writing — outside prison walls. The policy gave prison superintendents the power to block publication of work that violated any of a number of broad rules — including portraying the prison department in a way that could “jeopardize safety or security.” It also prohibited incarcerated people from getting paid for their creative work.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision told New York Focus that it planned to apply the restrictions to journalism, which wasn’t mentioned in the directive. Incarcerated writers and watchdogs expressed concerns that the rules were meant to silence information-sharing and possibly violated the First Amendment.

“The Constitution does not give prison officials a choice whether to respect the fundamental rights of incarcerated New Yorkers,” said Antony Gemmell, director of detention litigation for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “DOCCS should be embarrassed that this policy ever saw the light of day. We’re glad to hear that it’s being rescinded.”

DOCCS had not published the directive to its website until New York Focus reached out last week.

In a statement first reported by HuffPost and The Marshall Project, DOCCS claimed that the directive “is not being interpreted as the Department intended” and that “it was never our objective to limit free speech or creative endeavors.” New York Focus had given DOCCS multiple opportunities to clarify the scope of the directive in advance of the initial article.

The department also said that it will “engage … stakeholders to revise the policy.” When New York Focus asked for more context and a timeline for a new policy, DOCCS simply re-sent the statement.

The policy and its sudden reversal will be among the last episodes of the tenure of Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci, who has headed the prison agency for a decade. His last day is Friday.

“It’s a great thing,” said Freddy Medina, a writer who wrote and reported for New York Focus before he was released from prison in September. The rescindment means that DOCCS “knew they were doing something they weren’t supposed to,” he said.

According to Medina, in the leadup to the New York Focus article’s publication, the policy had “created a buzz” among incarcerated people he’s in touch with.

He emphasized what a blow the directive would have been to many still on the inside. “You’re not only silencing voices,” he said. “You’re taking away everything.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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