A new state policy says families of inmates in state prisons cannot bring them food anymore, provoking protests among relatives and advocates who say it is denying them a basic right.
But state officials say the policy is needed because contraband, including drugs and weapons, is getting into the prisons through some of the packages.
Families must now order the food from outside vendors who deliver it through FedEx, UPS or the U.S. Postal Service.
The relatives, including some on Long Island, and their advocates say the policy is making it prohibitively expensive to send goods to the inmates.
They contend prison food is largely unhealthy, and bringing their loved ones packages was the main way they got nutritious food.
“One of the things that really creates a lifeline is families being able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to their loved ones,” said Serena Martin-Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women & Children-LI, a Brentwood-based group that works with female inmates.
“This is really a nonsensical, cruel punishment for families,” she said.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that the policy still allowed outside food to get to inmates, but at the same time was successfully reducing the amount of contraband coming in.
“The safety and well-being of staff and incarcerated individuals is the Department's top priority,” the DOCCS said in a statement. “The presence of contraband in correctional facilities exacerbates violence and enables illicit drug use.”
Initial data shows the program is working, the state said. From the time the new policy went fully into effect during August, the number of contraband items recovered in prison package inspection rooms dropped by 81% — from 112 in August to 21 in October.
Families can have two packages of food a month delivered to their relatives, with a total weight of 35 pounds. They can also send one package of clothing every six months.
New York is home to 44 state prisons with about 31,000 inmates, including hundreds from Long Island. Most are located upstate. None are on Long Island.
Caroline Hansen of Hauppauge, whose husband, Kristian Hansen, is an inmate at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, said the bill for the food she delivered to him each month had more than doubled with the new policy.
She used to spend between $70 and $120 a month. Now it is about $270 a month, including a shipping fee. The vendor she uses charged nearly $8 just for two tomatoes, she said.
Hansen says she understands some people may not have sympathy for inmates — her husband has been in prison for 26 years for killing a cabdriver — but she says eating properly is a basic right that can help inmates on the road to rehabilitation.
“It’s morally wrong they are doing this,” said Hansen, a waitress who also works for New Hour. The policy “not only puts a strain on the incarcerated person, it also puts a strain on the family” that has to come up with the extra money.
Inmates at state prisons are allowed to store food in their cells. They are given small plastic foam coolers which, at Sullivan for instance, are refilled with ice twice a day.
State officials say families can use any vendor they want to send food, including Walmart and Amazon, except those on an 8-page list of vendors that are banned because of improper activity.
Hansen and Martin-Liguori said using companies such as Amazon and Walmart is not feasible because they often deliver items in different boxes — and only two boxes per month are allowed. Sometimes the deliveries are delayed, spoiling the food, they said.
Smuggling contraband into the prisons was on the rise before the new policy went into effect, the DOCCS said. In 2019, officials found contraband in 290 packages. In 2020, the number jumped to 924 packages. Between January and August 2021, it was 577 packages.
Since the new policy went into effect at all state prisons in August, officials said they have found only one package with contraband.
Jails in Nassau and Suffolk that are run by the counties do not allow relatives to bring food to inmates, officials said. They are allowed to provide some clothing and other nonfood items such as books and newspapers. Inmates can buy additional food from the jail commissaries.
One criminal justice system expert, Professor Elizabeth M. Nevins of Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law, says she thinks the new state policy is counterproductive and should be dropped.
“I feel like the correction system does a lot to dehumanize the people who are there and to cut them off from their families when the connection to the community is probably the most important thing they’ll need for when they get out” so they can reintegrate safely into society, she said.
“Packages from home are one real way to maintain that” connection, she said.
The prisons take extensive steps to stop contraband, she noted, including opening, inspecting, X-raying and sometimes destroying packages if they are suspicious.
The families have won the backing of some politicians who also want the new policy to end.
State Assemblyman David Weprin, chair of the Assembly Committee of Correction, said a similar policy was implemented several years ago, but rescinded by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“It just makes no sense to have this when you have the security that you have” including K-9 dogs who sniff packages, he said. “You’re eliminating that aspect of the personal touch of family, especially when it comes to holiday times.”
He said most contraband got into prisons from other sources, such as staff.
“I don’t think it’s coming in from the visitors because they are severely screened,” he said.