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Prison is haunted by the same pathologies and dysfunction found in society at large. 

Take overdoses, for example. They are at an all-time high in the U.S. And the same trend is true in prisons across the country, where drug overdoses have increased fivefold from 2009 to 2019.

Recently, the opioid crisis, which experts have said is driving the rise in overdoses, has been used to justify the restriction of privileges in prisons. In early May, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision  (DOCCS), mostly banned care packages for the state’s incarcerated people.

The new DOCCS directive means that 6,000 incarcerated New Yorkers can no longer receive packages of food brought to them during visits or sent to them through the mail. The directive also prevents family and friends from sending more than two non-food packages per year.

The rule is currently in effect at eight prisons, with plans to expand it to every state prison.

An April 25 memo from DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci stated that the new policy was in response to “an increase in violence and overdoses due to the introduction of contraband through the package room, specifically illicit drugs and weapons.” 

But this is unlikely to reduce the presence of drugs in prisons. 

To be sure, dangerous contraband exists in the state’s prisons, and something needs to be done about the spate of overdoses and deaths. 

But this restriction of food packages is not the answer. All items brought or mailed to the facility go through an x-ray machine and are visually inspected, opened and probed by officers who staff the package room. And there is no conclusive evidence that contraband is entering facilities through package rooms. 

In fact, it might be coming through the front door. Multiple federal investigations into prison corruption schemes have charged corrections officers with smuggling contraband into prisons in exchange for cash.  

The new restrictions are an attempt to revive a 2018 state initiative that allowed only packages shipped by six approved vendors — all of which strictly catered to incarcerated consumers and charged exorbitant prices for clothing and processed foods. 

That 2018 policy was terminated following outcry from incarcerated people and their loved ones. But the opioid crisis has provided the department with leverage to bring back the draconian package room policy and implement similar restrictions.

The newer policy does not limit the online vendors that may be used to ship food packages to prisons. But price premiums attached to online shopping and shipping will burden ordinary low-income people.

The restrictions place tremendous stress on an already financially-strapped prison population. In New York, prisoner salaries range between 16 cents an hour and 65 cents an hour.

Many older family and friends on fixed incomes will be unable to continue providing material support to their loved ones in prison. Additionally, older family and friends may lack internet access, be intimidated by the internet or simply lack knowledge of how to use it.

Making matters worse, the policy further limits already scarce food options. Bargain hunting will become a greater challenge. And some food items like cheese, cooked meats, fresh fruits, vegetables and treats will be much harder, if not impossible, to come by.

Most prison commissaries in New York are like corner bodegas in poor neighborhoods — rife with sugary and salty items that lack nutritional value. It is no surprise that a significant number of the state’s aging incarcerated population has high blood pressure, diabetes or other medical conditions caused in part by a poor diet.  

Consider a frequent main entrée served in mess halls: a salt-heavy soybean concoction that reads on the menu like the wholesome beef or chicken main dish it seeks to imitate. 

For many, packages from home offer crucial dietary supplements in a place where only minimum dietary needs are met, and usually with highly processed foods.

Were it not for the support provided by loved ones, most incarcerated persons would live a pauper’s existence. 

Retributive solutions — like the new package restrictions — do nothing to stop the overdose crisis in prisons. But they will give prisoners something else to be enraged about.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.