The United States continues to have the largest prison population in the World; with only 5 percent of the World’s population, it hosts over 20 percent of the World’s prison population. Instead of rectifying the mass incarceration crisis in the United States, federal and state prisons are scaling back the rights of inmates, often in favor of corporations seeking to profit off the prison industry.
In New York, Directive 4911A was enacted last month at three prisons in the state and could soon be applied to all prisons statewide. The program limits the packages prison inmates can receive to products distributed by six vendors. So far out of five vendors with available product lists, only 77 different books are available to be purchased, 24 of them coloring books and 21 puzzle books. Several New York State Prisons were already under a “TV Facility” directive, meaning prisons with televisions restricted inmates to just two food packages per year.
Activists and organizing against the directive pushed New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to announce on January 12, “I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipment of books & care packages to inmates.” Though he added that New York will continue to seek ways to “redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.”
In December 2017, the New York Times reported that the State of Texas has 10,000 books on its ban list, including several classic novels, while white supremacist texts like Hitler’s Mein Kampf managed to not make the list. The same month, the state of Mississippi issued a ban on books from non-profit agencies to prevent a non-profit called Big House Books from being able to donate books to prisons in the state.
In the wake of this trend across the country from state prison systems banning books being sent to inmates, the State of New Jersey banned Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, in several of the state’s prisons, only to reverse it after the ACLU protested, calling the ban “unconstitutional.”
As several states enact rules and regulations that further restrict the daily lives of inmates, prisons across the country are further scaling back the rights of inmates by replacing in-person visitation with video call systems run by for-profit companies. Outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, in late 2017 the Jefferson Parish Correctional Facility completely replaced in-person visits with video calls that cost $12.99 per 20 minute phone call. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 74 percent of prison facilities that implement video call systems do so in tandem with scaling back or replacing them with in-person visitations rather than providing them as a supplement for families and inmates. At least 600 prison facilities across the United States have implemented video call systems. “When your relationship is mediated with a video screen that can become difficult for children who maybe might become distracted or wondering why they can’t see their parent, incarcerated parent in person. This is one of the most difficult times in a person’s life. going through incarceration, “said Lucius Couloute, a research associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, in an interview with me. “It’s a dehumanizing experience. Video calling systems are not bad in and of themselves but when you latch on exorbitant prices, the removal of in-person visits, all that contributes to what is really an exploitative industry that hurts incarcerated people more than it helps them.”
In-person visits and encouraging inmates to read have both been demonstrated to reduce recidivism. In a November 2011 study, the Minnesota Department of Corrections compared recidivism rates for 16, 420 ex-prisoners over a five year period, and found that those who had in person visits were directly correlated to a reduction in recidivism of those individuals. “Any visit reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony re-convictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations, which reflects the fact that visitation generally had a greater impact on revocations. The findings further showed that more frequent and recent visits were associated with a decreased risk of recidivism,” the study noted. In 1991, University of Massachusetts Professor Bob Waxler started a prison program called ‘Changing Lives Through Literature.’ In the program’s first year, participants exhibited a 19 percent recidivism rate, compared to 45 percent for a control group, and these findings have been replicated several times.
But rather than U.S. Prisons and public policy working to reduce mass incarceration, recidivism, and provide inmates with the infrastructure and support systems required to integrate them back into society, the rights of inmates and their families are being rescinded as part of policies that serve the best interests of the prison industrial complex and the corporations that thrive off it.