Why Is New York Banning Packages in Prisons?

Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Oct 19, 2022

Lakisha Santana Sell used to bring her husband, David Sell, bags filled with mangoes, avocados, granola bars, and other healthy snacks when she visited him at Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York. Twice a month, she weighed out bags of food, careful not to exceed the 35-pound monthly maximum.

But that tradition came to a halt this past May when the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) implemented a pilot program that prevented family and friends from bringing packages to their loved ones in prison.

And in July, the pilot program became official policy across all New York state prisons. Under the new directive, people in prison can only receive two packages directly from family and friends per year, and those packages cannot contain food. They must be sent via the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, or UPS, meaning people can no longer bring them in during visits. All other packages must be purchased from external vendors.

“I enjoyed getting his food because I knew he would be eating right,” said Santana Sell. Prison food is of notoriously poor quality, and she said her husband has lost weight in the months since the rule change. “I can tell that he has gotten smaller, just by looking at his face.”

DOCCS, in an April memorandum, described the policy as necessary to reduce overdoses and violence, without providing any evidence to support those claims. After all, packages have always been subject to physical inspection and search by X-ray and scanners.

“We cannot verify that the ‘solution’ DOCCS has implemented will stop contraband or decrease facility violence,” New York State Assemblymember David Weprin and State Senator Julia Salazar wrote in a Gotham Gazette op-ed in July. “This lack of transparency leads us to the concerning suspicion that DOCCS is using the package policy punitively.”

The rule change is yet another addition to the litany of ways the U.S. criminal legal system unjustly and inhumanely punishes people. It does nothing but make it more difficult for people in prison to stay connected to family and friends. Formerly incarcerated people have said that packages from loved ones are about more than just fresh fruit and vegetables—they’re a reminder that someone else cares for them.

“DOCCS, corrections officers—they place blocks and barriers between our loved ones and ourselves,” Santana Sell said. “They go above and beyond to make things a little bit more uncomfortable for us.”

Bans on mail, excessive charges for phone calls, and limits on in-person visits isolate people in prison from everyone outside of prison. In doing so, these practices don’t just hurt people in prison—they harm families and communities. But for people who are incarcerated, maintaining those connections is key to ensuring they succeed when they return home.

Thomas Gant returned home this September. Incarcerated when he was 21 years old, he spent 25 years in prison, most recently at Wende. He said the package ban caused panic among his incarcerated friends. The policy has made an already bad situation worse, forcing people to rely on the limited supply of sugary foods available at commissary.

“We’re talking about food here and guys who are literally trying to survive,” he said. “It’s baffling to me that DOCCS want to further deprive people who are already deprived.”

“There were very few ways I could take care of him. That’s what you want to do as a partner, as a wife, but there are very few ways to do that with the barrier of incarceration, so food was the way I did that,” Kerry Gant, Thomas Gant’s wife, said. “Losing that, it does affect you.”

Nine in 10 incarcerated people will return to their communities, so we should focus on setting our future neighbors up for success,” said Clinique Chapman, associate director of Vera and MILPA's Restoring Promise initiative, which works to improve prison culture and conditions nationwide. “Families provide that much-needed support system, reducing the impact of the stressors that reentry will bring.”

With the policy change, families must endure new financial burdens, factoring in shipping costs and vendor fees. Meanwhile, it’s the for-profit companies that send prison-specific packages that stand to benefit. But, as Weprin and Salazar point out, those vendors are an “unnecessary go-between.”

Sadly, New York is far from the first to implement such restrictions. In fact, most states make it absurdly difficult for people in prison to receive packages. It’s not New York’s first attempt, either. In 2018, a similar policy was rescinded after just 10 days following public outcry.

Santana Sell said she’s reluctant to mail packages to David because she’s heard “horror stories” already, of high shipping costs, lost items, spoiled food, and packages getting “split up,” thereby exceeding the maximum of three packages an incarcerated person is allowed to receive each month. For her, this policy’s reversal is long overdue. It leaves people in prison with no access to fresh food, as commissaries are woefully lacking, and it hurts people in prison and their families.