As part of an effort to keep illegal drugs and other contraband out of state prisons, New York is taking away one of the few joys of life behind bars: It will no longer let people send inmates care packages from home.
Under the new policy, which the state began phasing in last month, friends and family are not allowed to deliver packages in person during prison visits. They also won’t be allowed to ship boxes of goodies unless they come directly from third-party suppliers.
While the rule doesn’t stop inmates from getting items that can be ordered online, like a Snickers bar or a bag of Doritos, they will lose access to food like home-cooked meals or Grandma’s cookies.
It is a disappointment for people like Caroline Hansen, who for 10 years hand-delivered packages filled with fresh vegetables, fruit and meat to her husband, who is serving a life sentence.
“When I started bringing him packages, he said he loved avocados. He hadn’t had them in about 20 years, says Hansen, a single mother of two who works as a waitress on Long Island.
“What breaks my heart is that I take for granted having a banana with my yogurt. Imagine never being able to eat a banana?” she added, saying her husband’s prison cafeteria serves bananas at most once a month.
New York had been one of the few states in the nation that still allowed families to send packages to inmates from home. The rule is already in effect in a majority of state prisons.
Starting this month, the state prison system is also testing a program where inmates will be blocked from having most letters sent on paper. Instead, incoming letters will be scanned by computer, and prisoners will receive copies.
The change is being made to try to stem a trend of people soaking letters in drugs to smuggle them past the authorities. Several states, including Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, already photocopy incoming mail to prevent drugs from being delivered to inmates. The federal Bureau of Prisons began a similar practice in 2019.
New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in a statement that the two new policies are necessary to stop smuggling.
Contraband has been smuggled into prisons in a variety of ways: books filled with heroin, weapons and unauthorized electronics such as phones hidden in packages, and mail soaked in drugs such as methamphetamine or a synthetic cannabinoid, also known as K2.
When packages are received by a prison, officers remove the items from the box to inspect the items visually or through an X-ray machine. If there is reason to suspect, officials are allowed to open sealed packages for further inspection.
However, these checks are not perfect, and the authorities believe that items slip through.
Critics of the package ban questioned its effectiveness, noting that banned items are sometimes brought in by corrupt prison staff.
California stopped allowing people to ship packages directly to inmates in 2003. Instead, inmates and families can order items through an approved supplier list provided by the state. In Florida, families are also not allowed to send packages from home.
Advocates for prisoners and families of inmates say the package policy is too restrictive — and an added financial burden.
Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, called prison food a “nutritional nightmare,” and said some incarcerated people depend on care packages to maintain a healthy diet.
Relatives of inmates often rely on private suppliers such as Walkenhorst and the Jack L. Marcus Company, which specialize in shipping permitted goods to prisoners, but goods purchased from third-party suppliers can be more expensive.
Before he was released from Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, former inmate Wilfredo Laracuente said he was able to order a 16-kilogram package for himself that contained packaged cookies, crackers, chips, soaps, shampoo and some toiletries.
It cost $230 – the kind of money most prisoners don’t have.
“This is going to be the beginning of the end, where they stop everything under the guise of security and contraband,” said Laracuente, who served two decades in prison for murder and now facilitates workshops that help recently released inmates reintegrate into society. “What they are doing is removing the human component that is very important and necessary for re-entry.”
Even before the ban, families often complained that sending parcels was unreliable.
Angelica Watson, whose husband and brother are both incarcerated, said she tried to send them packages monthly, but food items didn’t always get through before they were spoiled.
“Most of it was non-perishable stuff,” said Watson, who lives in Buffalo. “I tried to make it fresh, but it wasn’t a good idea because they kept it in their warehouses and it would go bad.”
Hansen, whose husband is serving time for killing a taxi driver, said having to order goods through suppliers who charge “ridiculous prices” was no solution to smuggling.
“My husband basically thinks this is another way to deprive him of his basic necessities,” Hansen said.
More than 60 families of inmates sent letters of complaint to New York Assemblyman David Weprin, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corrections. Weprin criticized the new policy.
The package restriction was first introduced in 2018 through a pilot program at three state prisons, where families could only send packages through a list of six pre-approved online providers. It was quickly repealed by then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, due to public backlash and criticism.
Maysoon Khan is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter.