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Why Is Sending Care Packages to Prisons So Hard?

The incarcerated have been more isolated than ever over the past year, but arbitrary DOCCS rules make it difficult to provide care from the outside. It’s up to the public to push back on the powerful carceral system.

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It was a dreary winter Monday morning, and I had virtual court appearances beginning at 9:30, but first I had to make another attempt to get ahold of First Deputy Superintendent Johnson at Green Haven Correctional Facility to ask why, again, three care packages sent by my volunteers to people incarcerated at the prison had been rejected and returned.

I had left a message with him Friday afternoon and was hoping to have better luck now, given the early hours these facilities seemed to operate by. No such luck. I couldn’t get past Barbara at the front desk, and who had a brand-new, seemingly speculative explanation for me: Every package sent to someone incarcerated at Green Haven must contain a receipt for every item it contained. Johnson had not mentioned this to me during our conversations last spring, nor was it listed in the detailed package “directive” issued by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). This meant that nobody could receive anything that had not been purchased recently. I left my name and number again and went into the rest of my day’s tasks feeling discouraged and a bit bamboozled.

It was exactly this sort of roadblock that caused me, after organizing 30 care packages last spring, to swear to myself, “I’m never going to try that again—no more care packages!” The main endeavor of this volunteer group I founded—the Beacon Prison Rides Project—is to provide free transportation from the Beacon train station for family members visiting their incarcerated loved ones at any one of the six state prisons within a half-hour of town. We are a group of about 50 people and have provided over a thousand free trips during our three years in operation. But family visitation has been suspended for most of the last year due to the pandemic, and we found ourselves wanting to send a little bit of “care” to the scared, lonely people behind bars whose families could no longer visit.

This was a small effort to help our “riders,” as well. One thing I’ve learned is that prison visits provide an opportunity not just to catch up and reconnect, but also for visitors to give their loved one a little taste of home—a favorite food or missing essentials—without the time and expense involved with mailing those gifts.

Talking with Green Haven prison staff about their rules and regulations (real and pretend) has given me just the smallest taste of what families of the incarcerated go through on a regular basis. After seeing the distress and rage that our riders sometimes took away from their prison visits, I was surprised at the tone with which prison staff dealt with my complaints and questions: never rude, but just constantly confounding. I suspect this polite treatment was due to the fact that I was unsullied by the inmate stigma—had no personal connection to an incarcerated person, but was just a white lady trying to do good.

But I also wonder whether this is one of the (milder) tones these families regularly deal with in their interactions with the prisons—a practiced technique adopted to deal with the public, giving us nothing tangible to complain about, making us wonder if we were missing something, but also discouraging us from ever wanting to contact them again (thus my oath to never again attempt care packages). For example, Barbara, after confirming the receipt rule, offered to look up the Department Identification Numbers of the men who were the intended recipients to make sure none of them had a “ticket” which might have caused package privileges to be revoked. Or, when speaking with First Deputy Superintendent Johnson last spring (when he still took my calls), he readily agreed with me that our efforts to provide a little cheer and assistance to these men was a worthy one, particularly during the height of a pandemic, which was disproportionately killing prisoners. He even told me he had visited the package room himself and pulled out a couple that were languishing there, distributing the toiletries, canned goods, and perishable produce they contained. Our primary mistake, in case you’re curious, was the formatting of our return address. However, fixing that problem to their liking proved easier said than done.

The much more distressing result of this experience for me was that it reiterated the extreme disregard with which incarcerated people are treated. I work as a public defender, and so I already knew this from hearing the firsthand accounts of my clients. But to be the proximate cause of such treatment, and to not have the power to remedy or prevent it, left me without words. And it brought me to this place where I find myself trying to articulate to others some of the more subtle harms inflicted by this huge carceral system that we support.

Credit: Google Maps
Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison in Beekman.

Here are just a couple of the ways our prisons flex (and I would argue abuse) their power, just in the context of packages. In 2018, Cuomo made moves to contract with for-profit vendors and to limit all care packages to items sent directly from those vendors, but he backed down in the face of public outrage. Nonetheless, the list of items that incarcerated New Yorkers are not allowed to receive is long, including home-cooked food, frozen food, dried fruits, food or toiletries that are not “hermetically sealed,” cans over 16 ounces, poppy seeds, envelopes, and any blue footwear. During a pandemic in which these men are required to live, eat, bathe, and sleep in close quarters, we are not allowed to send hand sanitizer (because it contains alcohol) nor masks (no explanation given). Both essentials have been in short supply, depending on the prison and the month, and the subject of many pleas for help that we have received. I learned later of a single nonprofit organization that has been authorized by DOCCS to donate cloth masks. I sent them some money. 

Even more confounding about the package protocols is that the intended recipients were each held responsible for the return postage for their package, unless they agreed to have its contents tossed out. Several of our riders’ loved ones reported $10 to $20 that came out of their hard-earned funds (keeping in mind that the average hourly wage is 65 cents). Our attempts to help ease these men’s struggles just a bit during these hard times had inadvertently added to their burdens. Feeling discouraged, I reimbursed those who would accept it.

Later on the same day I had my conversation with the implacable Barbara at Green Haven, I got a notification from JPay, the company through which incarcerated New Yorkers can exchange emails with those outside. It was a thank-you email from the husband of one of our riders: his care package had gotten through on our second attempt, despite lacking an itemized receipt! The other email in my inbox was, coincidentally, from a man whose sister was attempting to do a similar care package project through her church. He asked if I could lend her some advice, as their packages had so far all been rejected. Their group was told that “churches can’t send packages.” The church, according to the prison, was a nonentity.

Which leads me to the one lesson I’ve learned from this experience that I feel like I am ready to articulate: If we—the public—do not engage this behemoth carceral system, the prisons will continue to see themselves as in contract only with those whom they incarcerate. That is the relationship these prisons and their staff feel most comfortable with, because they hold all the power. What’s more, these institutions often see the mostly Black and brown families of their prisoners as mere extensions of them, and attempt to treat them with the same control and disrespect.

So it is important that those of us, like me, who are not personally affected by the carceral system should be led by those who are. For just a few examples of groups doing amazing work, go to the Alliance of Families for Justice, the RAPP Campaign, and the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. We must direct our voices and our power as voters and taxpayers to strengthening the resistance movements led by the formerly incarcerated and families of incarcerated people. And we must keep doing so regardless of how many times we are ignored, disrespected, or bamboozled.

The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.