Change for the Worse: Life Under New York DOCCS’s New Package Policy

Sep 06, 2023

On May 9, 2022, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) implemented a new policy that no longer permits families or friends to bring food packages to incarcerated people. DOCCS also eliminated mail packages, except for two non-food packages yearly. Packages must now be ordered from approved vendors with inflated prices. Providing for loved ones has now become a financial burden for most families. Why such a drastic shift in policy?

This is not the first time that DOCCS has attempted to change the package policy. During Governor Andrew Cuomo's tenure, DOCCS proposed this same change. A pilot program was initiated but, soon after, Governor Cuomo directed DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci to rescind it. Four years later, this same proposal for receivable packages is now an official policy in all New York facilities.

DOCCS’s reasoning for this new policy was to stop contraband from entering correctional facilities. DOCCS utilizes X-ray machines similar to those used at U.S. airports to detect contraband. Twenty-six years of incarceration have afforded me the ability to know and understand the prison population. Most people would not even consider smuggling contraband through the package room. The process of examining packages for contraband is effective and bears a very high success rate, yet DOCCS has taken a common position in punishing the entire prison population for the acts of a few.

If packages sent by families posed such a security risk, why are families still allowed to mail two non-food packages a year? This also makes one wonder, if 90 percent of all incarcerated people return to society, shouldn’t prison policies be more reflective of how our society functions?

Consider airport security, which utilizes the same X-ray technology. When contraband is detected, the individual is punished. Would it be reasonable for all passengers to be held accountable and punished? Would the TSA implement a policy that permanently eliminated any carry-on luggage? Imagine having your luggage shipped by an independent company. Get ready to dig deep into your wallets because companies will take advantage of this. One of two things would occur: people would either utilize other means of transportation or take on this financial burden. For struggling families, they must find other means to send a care package associated with a financial burden. For the incarcerated, this presents a host of issues that only worsen with time.

When the new package directive became official, I was working as a feed-up porter. This job required me to pass out food trays to people who could not walk to the mess hall. I was also afforded access to everyone within my housing area. I would push a cart down every unit and feed those kept locked in their cells for disciplinary infractions or medical issues, as well as those in the middle of the initial 72-hour quarantine for new arrivals.

Change didn't occur gradually—it came immediately! Most men now had to depend on state food to survive, an unhealthy soy-based diet with portions that would barely feed a child. Men with diabetes were now back on their medication because they weren’t able to receive fruits and vegetables from home. With time, more and more people signed up for "chow,” a term that means you walk to the mess hall to eat. The chow count went from 20 to 60 people for almost every meal. I recall a corrections officer asking me, “Why are so many people putting down for chow?” I told him this was in response to the new package directive, and he replied, “That makes sense.” The last dinner is always served between 4:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.—by the end of the night, people were sure to be hungry.

With each passing day, more and more people would ask me for bread or rice from the extra food trays. Others asked for ramen soup, which I gave them from my personal food supply. These weren’t things people would normally ask for; people usually asked for a snack, like chips or a Little Debbie cake. Prior to the new directive, these snacks were plentiful among the population. A request for soup was confirmation that people were hungry.

Although we can buy food from the commissary, the average prison wage is five or six dollars every two weeks. It is impossible for one to obtain their necessities with prison wages. Imagine trying to budget five or six dollars when you need soap, toothpaste, or detergent. You have no funds left over for food, coffee, or cigarettes. I have seen people pick up cigarette butts from the ground, just so they can smoke. I heard a man say, “I’m not taking a shower today because I have to save my soap.” Snacks went up in price, along with tuna fish, ramen soups, and socks; some items have doubled in price. At one point, a head of lettuce was almost four dollars.

Having money sent from home is an option, but therein lies a dilemma: every incarcerated person enters the system with a mandatory $350 court surcharge. If you receive money from home, 50 percent is taken and paid toward the surcharge. Why aren't surcharge fees solely deducted from prison wages? Because this would take some time, considering the pennies we are paid. However, this presents an opportunity for DOCCS to increase pay for incarcerated workers and allow people to earn a decent wage in order to survive, pay off their surcharges, and afford food. This would also promote a sense of responsibility that’s essential for reentry success. What this policy is creating is a level of frustration that is having a negative impact on the prison population.

In a recent memo sent to the incarcerated population, Acting Commissioner Daniel Martuscello stated, “Your voices, struggles, and experiences are important.” Yet, sometimes we feel that our voices are not being heard. It also feels like we are moving forward and backward at the same time—the problems are identified, but the solutions are failing. We see policies that contribute to a more stressful and counterproductive environment. Rules and regulations in prison are dictated by the commissioner, and we are hopeful that our new commissioner will rescind the package directive and establish other means to minimize the stress associated with doing time.

David Sell is a husband, grandfather, writer, hospice volunteer, and advocate for prison reform. In an attempt to bring about awareness and create change, he writes for the millions of families and people who have been impacted by mass incarceration. He can be reached on JPay at David Sell, 97b2642, NYS DOCCS Inmate Services.

Vera believes in using our platforms to elevate diverse voices and opinions, including those of people currently and formerly incarcerated. Other than Vera employees, contributors speak for themselves. Vera has not independently verified the statements made in this post.