Cuomo Orders Correction Dept. to Revoke Program Limiting Inmates' Access to Books

 PHOTO: ANDREW SAVULICH | DAILY NEWS

PHOTO: ANDREW SAVULICH | DAILY NEWS

Daily NewsCuomo Orders Correction Dept. to Revoke Program Limiting Inmates' Access to Books

By Kenneth Lovett

ALBANY — Gov. Cuomo on Friday ordered the state prison system to scrap a new program that limited the types of care packages and books that could be mailed to prisoners.

"I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipments of books & care packages to inmates," Cuomo tweeted.

"Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband."

Under the doomed pilot program that was in place in three prisons, families wishing to send books and care packages to inmates were required to go through a handful of online vendors.

But inmate advocates complained that the vendors only offered a limited amount of books, including a combined five romance novels, 14 religious texts, 24 drawing or coloring books, 21 puzzle books, 11 how-to books, one dictionary, and one thesaurus.

Books Through Bars, which provided a large number of reading material to inmates over the years, was not one of the six vendors picked by the state, though state officials had said they'd still be able to send books to the prison libraries.

Inmate advocates hailed Cuomo's decision to kill the program.

"Albany heard loud and clear from our incarcerated clients, their impacted family members, defender organizations, small businesses and others that this directive was wrongheaded and punitive," said Tina Luongo, of the Legal Aid Society.

State prison system spokesman Thomas Mailey said the pilot program in three of its facilities was similar to ones to combat contraband entering prisons already in place in nearly 30 other states.

She argued that forcing inmates and their families to buy from a few pre-selected vendors "results in price-gouging, creates anger and fosters hopelessness in already volatile prisons, and interferes with their ability to maintain meaningful relations with the community back home."

State prison system spokesman Thomas Mailey said the pilot program in three of its facilities was similar to ones to combat contraband entering prisons already in place in nearly 30 other states.

"However, concerns have been raised by families of inmates regarding the availability and price of products under this program, concerns we do not take lightly," Mailey said.

He said the pilot program will be suspended "until these concerns are addressed. In the meantime, we will redouble our efforts on the other parts of our multi-faceted plan to eliminate contraband and increase safety in our prison system."

The announcement comes after hundreds of prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County launched a multifaceted protest against the program. The prisoners stopped eating in the mess hall and carrying out their work assignments.

At one point earlier this month, hundreds of prisoners sat in total silence with spoons in their hands inside the mess hall.

Prison officers searched some of their cells and placed prisoners in solitary or keeplock in their cells in retaliation, inmate advocates claim.

"That (prisoners) came together for this says something about this was the end for them," said Caroline Hsu, staff attorney at the Prisoners' Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. "This program would have been the straw that broke the camel's back. I hope the prison system appreciates that when they go re-evaluate this."