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In New York prisons, widespread package room complaints go unresolved
By Gabe Stern
Seven months after the coronavirus pandemic hit Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a committee of incarcerated people met with administrators to discuss what was going wrong.
First on the agenda was the spotty TV programs. Second was the damaged packages. Then the committee repeated a request they had made two months earlier: security cameras in the package room.
At the previous meeting in August, the committee said package room procedures were a “growing concern” at the all-men’s maximum-security prison in Westchester County, records show. Food started to spoil as packages were held for up to a week. Items went missing after staff checked boxes for contraband. Earlier in the summer, as a COVID-19 outbreak swept through the facility, the committee asked that masks be processed through the package room, to no avail.
“None of these issues have been addressed,” the committee said in October.
It’s a common sentiment in prisons across the state.
Records detailing Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC) meetings from 13 prisons in New York state show a pattern of inconsistent procedures in package rooms. As a second wave of COVID-19 shuts down visitation and many programs, longstanding directives meant to monitor contraband have barred many food and cleaning items from being processed.
That same directive bars loved ones from sending masks into prisons, as at least a dozen incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19 in 44 of New York’s 52 state prisons.
Every New York state prison has an ILC, which airs collective grievances on behalf of the prison’s general population. The ILC records range from May through December and were obtained through New York’s Freedom of Information Law. Package room issues arose at least once in each prison The Daily Orange reviewed records from.
“When it comes to what’s not allowed, they’re strict on that,” said Herbert Morales, a fellow at the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit organization that monitors New York state prisons. “But when it comes to items that are allowed, they’ll say that they’re not allowed.”
He attributed most of the problems to under-resourced package rooms.
Behind bars, most ILCs discussed package room issues alongside other concerns that have further isolated prisons from the outside world: delayed emails, suspended visitation and a lack of information about COVID-19, among others. Several reported that commissaries, where incarcerated people can buy snacks, hygiene products and other items, were lacking much of the supply that was barred from coming in. Some requested that the commissary starts selling masks, which was denied each time.
In interviews, family members on the outside said the issues cause financial burdens and heightened anxiety as the uncertainty of the virus’s spread – and unclear vaccine distribution guidelines – continue inside prisons. Several said they have spent thousands of dollars on food and supplies that never make it to a cell or spoil due to backlogs.
In response to a question about the effectiveness of package room procedures, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in an email that the department “continuously reviews its policies and procedures and handles any issues through the ILC or grievance process.”
Michael Powers, president of the New York State Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said in an interview that he had not heard of package complaints. He praised the staff for monitoring packages amid a yearslong uptick in contraband. Administrators at Sing Sing made an ILC subcommittee focused on packages, and security cameras were installed in the package room, DOCCS said in a statement.
Yet the complaints span across medium and maximum-security prisons, from 30 miles north of New York City to 35 miles east of Buffalo.
At Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Washington County, the ILC reported that some packages take up to two weeks to make it to a cell, despite the state directive’s 72-hour deadline for processing and delivering packages. Administrators told them an uptick in contraband had delayed some packages but denied that it was a widespread issue.
At Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, the ILC said staff was “verbally manipulating” the facility operations manual to their own personal views. The ILC requested cross-checks in the package room, which the administration denied.
At Auburn Correctional Facility in Cayuga County, the ILC described a cycle: incarcerated people would dispute package room procedures and request sergeant reviews of package denials. The complaints would pile up. The package room staff would become “belligerent,” and, as a result, more disputes and complaints would arise, the ILC said. The committee described improperly returned packages, a financial burden and an “abuse of authority” by the package room staff.
“There has been NO administrative action taken toward any staff whose unprofessional misconduct have been properly reported,” the committee said at its June meeting.
Administrators said they were looking into the complaints.
Then similar complaints appeared in the next five documented meetings.
Morales, who spent 33 years in New York state prisons, said he sees the same problems in package rooms as he did 40 years ago: under-resourced package room staffing, a state directive that leaves room for interpretation and little oversight when employees skirt official protocols.
He called the lack of staffing the “root cause” of the package room problems. Understaffing leads to mistakes, mistakes lead to grievances and grievances lead to increased tension throughout the facilities.
“These complaints have been going on for 40 years. You’re telling me nobody’s been able to figure out what the problem is?” Morales said. “When I was in, I used to talk to the package room officers, especially when I was the ILC chairman. And verbatim, every single time, they would tell me ‘we’re understaffed and overworked, Morales.’”
This leaves some family members guessing which items will make it through the package room, several said, and incarcerated people must foot the bill to send the items back. A woman named Tiffany, whose husband is in Auburn Correctional Facility, said she goes shopping with a tape measure to make sure each item meets the required size limits. She often sends the same items month after month. She worries about her husband as a COVID-19 outbreak spreads across the facility, with over 100 people testing positive.
“I send packages once a month, but I’m just discouraged from sending things at this point,” said Tiffany, who requested part of her name be redacted due to fears of retaliation for her husband. “It’s way too expensive, so it’s to the point where I’m just kind of sending money (for commissary) and hoping I can get a package in.”
Of the 13 prisons The D.O. obtained records from, eight ILCs had concerns about the commissary. Several concerns included shortages of supply, which some administrators said were statewide and due to problems with the vendor.
A DOCCS spokesperson said in an email that there are usually two corrections officers assigned to package rooms on morning and afternoon shifts, respectively. Morales, along with Powers, the NYSCOPBA president, said staffing per shift depends on the size of each prison.
Donna Robinson, an organizer with the Release Aging People in Prison campaign, sends a package once a month to her daughter in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She has a list of food and supplies that she knows has the best chance of making it through: chips that come in individual packets; bread from Pepperidge Farms because of the inner sealing; cookies that are in boxes, not peel-back tops.
She befriended eight other women in the prison and now sends them emails, food and money for the commissary. She calls them her “bonus daughters.” But lately, she can only support three by herself. Donations have thinned and she went into debt, partially accrued by thousands of dollars spent on packages that are delayed or denied.
“In some places, (the food’s) not even fit for human consumption,” she said. “Maybe they say I was offering them caviar — no, not so much. But I’m trying to give them a nutritious, balanced diet, especially in a time of a pandemic, when they need to have their immune system built up.”
Just as frustrating for Robinson is the lack of masks inside Bedford Hills, as well as the directive that bars her from sending them in. In October, Bedford Hills’ ILC became one of many committees who requested that loved ones can send in approved masks, which was denied. By then, 53 incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19 in the prison, one of whom had died.
Two months earlier, at Fishkill Correctional Facility –– where six incarcerated people died of COVID-19 and tight quarters made social distancing a “facade” –– the ILC reported that they needed an “adequate renewal system” in place for masks. Administrators responded and said the masks are a “1 for 1 replacement,” and could be “worn till soiled.”
A similar problem was brought up by Elmira Correctional Facility’s ILC, less than three weeks before the facility shut down in October due to an outbreak. The same went for Green Haven’s ILC, who added an italicized note after asking for more masks.
“(The) ILC is aware that the facility has no control of making the decision regarding this issue, thus this issue is being presented specifically to (DOCCS) Central Office…”
A DOCCS spokesperson did not directly answer a question concerning whether the department would amend the directive to allow loved ones to send in masks. The department said in an email that masks are readily available.
Morales said DOCCS has not amended the directive to allow masks for one reason: “because they can say so.”
“There’s no rhyme or reason to it. The only reason they say no is because they can,” he said. “The inmate population has requested the ability to purchase masks and the facility could have designated what vendor would be allowed. DOCCS has not entertained it.”
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