Censoring the News in New York Prisons

New York prisons have banned articles from The New York Times, New York magazine, and local newspapers, often citing their potential to incite disobedience.

Rebecca McCray   ·   May 20, 2024
a stack of newspapers, with redaction boxes covering the text, behind prison bars
DOCCS banned entire issues of publications from New York magazine to Prison Legal News. | Maia Hibbett

In 2016, D’uone Morrison wanted to read about racial bias in New York’s prison system. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo had ordered an investigation into the topic, and Morrison, a Black man incarcerated in New York, asked a friend to mail him a news article about it. But the prison’s media review committee blocked the article, Morrison told New York Focus, citing its potential to disrupt order and threaten security. His family and friends tried again, but it kept getting blocked.

It wasn’t Morrison’s first experience with this kind of censorship, and it wouldn’t be his last. Copies of the Bayview National Black Newspaper, which has subscribers in prisons nationwide, were also blocked, as were books related to Black history and activists. Black people account for half of New York’s incarcerated population, but less than a fifth of the state population overall.

In a recent review of publications the prison agency banned through 2018, New York Focus found that a New York Times investigation into racial disparities in the prison system’s disciplinary process — which prompted Cuomo’s inquiry — was one of more than 5,000 stories, books, newspapers, magazines, and other publications incarcerated people had been barred from reading. Sometimes, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, banned entire issues of publications, including the Albany Times Union, New York magazine, Newsweek, and Prison Legal News.

When prison officials decide not to let certain media in, “that becomes the culture,” Morrison said. “Something that minute can create so many negative effects for us in here, just the simple denial of a publication.”

The banned Times investigation, which chronicled pervasive racial bias in the state’s prisons, was blocked by the prison agency’s Central Media Review Office. The article was rejected at the facility level and then appealed, where it was ultimately blocked for its potential to “incite disobedience toward prison personnel.” This justification was one of the most common reasons listed for blocking many other news articles and books about prisons, race, and the broader criminal-legal system.

“Censorship is just a way to keep people oppressed.”

—D'uone Morrison

Andrew Dombek, who spent 33 years as a DOCCS corrections officer and parole officer and now teaches criminology at St. Bonaventure University, is sympathetic to officials’ need to ban publications that might aid in an incarcerated person’s escape or cause harm to someone else. But he thinks that much of the censorship he witnessed over the years boiled down to two main causes.

“Power and control,” Dombek told New York Focus. “It’s about vengeance, letting the inmate know who the boss is.”

In his three decades with the department, Dombek doesn’t recall any instances of violence or disobedience sparked by an incarcerated person having access to a publication. In fact, Dombek emphasized that access to news could benefit people after their release from prison.

“A lot of the local news will spotlight new programs, like a domestic violence program or mental health program, so then individuals will have that knowledge when they get out,” he said.

While people are still in prison, censoring information related to race and criminal justice can make it harder to exercise their rights.

“I cannot tell you how many times in the 17 years I was locked up I heard guards tell prisoners we had no rights,” said Paul Wright, the formerly incarcerated co-founder and managing editor of Prison Legal News. At first, he said, he believed them.

Misinformation can make it harder for people inside to lodge a defense if their rights have been violated. This is part of what led Wright to start Prison Legal News, which began as a newsletter and is now a monthly magazine with 9,000 print subscribers nationwide, 70 percent of whom are incarcerated.

Wright estimates that he has sued at least 20 different corrections departments to challenge the censorship of his publication, for reasons ranging from its potential to incite violence to the kind of paper it’s printed on. In 2012, he settled a legal challenge with the New York prison agency after sporadically hearing from readers that the publication was being blocked, and he’s not aware of any further instances of the magazine’s censorship in the state since.

“Sometimes, it’s something as mundane as the person who was the head of the media review committee, they retired, and someone else comes in and they just don’t like PLN,” said Wright.

In weighing the constitutional rights of incarcerated people, courts routinely rely on the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Turner v. Safley. The case set a standard that is largely deferential to prison officials, creating an uphill battle for incarcerated people fighting for First Amendment protections. Corrections officials need only demonstrate that censorship is “reasonably related to legitimate penological concerns” to prevail in court, and that legitimacy is rarely questioned.

In 2006, the Supreme Court permitted the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to continue to withhold all magazines, newspapers, and photographs from people incarcerated in the agency’s long-term segregation units. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer sided with the prison system, finding that depriving “a group of specially dangerous and recalcitrant inmates” of one of their last privileges created a “significant incentive” for better behavior.

Just as courts around the country continue to lean on decades-old legal precedent, Dombek said New York’s prison agency’s media review process is tethered to the past.

DOCCS is a fine example of a dinosaur,” said Dombek. “They don’t want to change until they’re forced to make changes.”

The prison agency “routinely allows publications that cover DOCCS — including many that amplify the voices of those currently or formerly incarcerated in New York State prisons — as well as articles on general criminal justice topics, into its facilities for incarcerated individuals to read,” according to a DOCCS spokesperson. New York Focus reporters have successfully sent articles about the prison agency to incarcerated people through JPay, the system’s for-profit telecom vendor — but have also had some rejected for containing material that could “compromise the security of a facility.”

“I cannot tell you how many times in the 17 years I was locked up I heard guards tell prisoners we had no rights.”

—Paul Wright, Prison Legal News

Any incarcerated person can challenge the denial of a publication at their prison through the system’s grievance process, the spokesperson added, which appeals the rejection to the Central Office Media Review Committee for further consideration. That committee rejected all of the more than 5,000 publications reviewed by New York Focus.

Morrison said that access to news behind bars has the potential to reduce recidivism, too. By preventing access to publications and books that might educate and empower incarcerated people, including news produced by and for Black communities, Morrison says DOCCS is inhibiting its own rehabilitative potential.

“Censorship is just a way to keep people oppressed, and to keep them from having access to materials that are going to help them make a change to become better,” said Morrison. “If we keep you dumb, deaf, and blind, that means you’ll potentially increase your time while you’re in here, or you’ll go home and come right back.”

Morrison and other incarcerated New Yorkers have access to a newsfeed via tablets purchased from prison communications vendor Securus. But all content in that newsfeed, which contains Associated Press articles, is subject to approval by DOCCS, leading incarcerated people who spoke to New York Focus to believe that the feed is filtered. And, Morrison said, he can only download the newsfeed when he has access to a central kiosk, which is just twice a month.

The Associated Press confirmed that Securus is a customer, but it declined to share how long it had contracted with the company. “Like any AP customer, they choose what content to put on their platform,” said Lauren Easton, the AP’s vice president of corporate communications.

Unlike Wright, many publishers are unaware of whether their publication is being censored in correctional facilities. They aren’t necessarily producing news with an incarcerated audience in mind, much less challenging that censorship. Publishers at the Times Union, The New York Times, and Newsweek did not respond to requests for comment about the censorship of their publications in New York prisons.

“DOCCS is a fine example of a dinosaur. They don’t want to change until they’re forced to make changes.”

—Andrew Dombek, former corrections officer

According to Dombek, many incarcerated people he oversaw subscribed to their local hometown newspapers — without interference from DOCCS — as a way to remain tethered to their communities. Gathering to watch the evening news was an important part of the day. One night, he recalled permitting an incarcerated man from Key West to stay up late to watch the news as Hurricane Andrew barreled toward Florida.

While prison officials often censored smaller publications that highlighted unpopular or minority viewpoints while he was incarcerated in Washington state, Wright said there was little censorship of mainstream news. He subscribed to The Seattle Times for the nearly two decades he was incarcerated and read the paper daily.

“People inside want to know what’s going on just like everyone else does,” Wright said. “The importance of the information can vary from life-saving, in the case of news about Covid, to wanting to know how Taylor Swift is doing on those billboard charts this week. That’s constitutionally protected, too. You don’t need some higher purpose.”

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.