At the end of December, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) announced the roll-out of a pilot program that would restrict packages to people in the New York State prisons. This pilot program would have restricted all packages to a handful of pre-selected vendors who provided limited items at a much higher price, ending the practice of loved ones sending personalized packages that give people on the inside much needed reminders of the love that continues for them.
SRLP joined a coalition of supporters across the state and together, with a rare protest at Green Haven Correctional Facility and media attention, we were all able to convince the Governor to stop this program. But the fight isn’t over – with this newly gained momentum and coalition, we want to see a revision of the packages guidelines in general!
Why This Matters
Packages matter for many reasons. They are a chance for an incarcerated person to reconnect with their community. Items that are not available inside the prison or from mass-marketed vendors can only be sent from the people that love you. So many of the people who are targeted for policing and incarceration are people of color, yet items specific to certain nations, cultures, or customs are not available from the proposed vendors. Incarcerated people are already so isolated, and denying a person the food items that provide comfort and a reason to hope is incredibly cruel.
Many of the TGNCI clients whom SRLP serves do not have connections with their biological or legal families so they generally receive far fewer pieces of mail, packages, or visits than other people. When incarcerated TGNCI people do receive packages, they are often the result of a community fundraiser, an organizational effort, or found family putting together a box with care. It would be even harder for found family, a non-profit, or community organization to send in packages at the exorbitant rates and hidden costs found on the approved vendors’ websites.
“We all know most of these catalogues are expensive – it feels very good to have family take the time to send packages to you while in jail, it saids a lot!” – Diamond A.
PAC member Shaylanna Luvme added that, if they “are told a package can’t be accepted [the incarcerated person’s] personal account is charged for the return.” This means that a well-meaning family member who accidently ordered a blanket in a color not allowed by the facility, never sees a refund on the rejected package, and the incarcerated person has to pay for the blanket’s return.
These boxes can provide important cultural connections. Prison libraries rarely carry books by or about LGBTGNCI people. Our clients rely on organizations such as LGBT Books to Prisoners or Books Through Bars to send them important works, like Janet Mock’s “Surpassing Certainty” or Vivek Shraya’s “Even this Page is White”, which connect our people to this particular political moment for TGNCI people of color. In a situation where our community is constantly being told that they are wrong, do not exist, and worse, these books can be the only source of identity and grounding.
Many of our clients also eat all of their meals in their cells. Rather than face the pat frisks that turn into sexual violence or the name calling that turns into physical violence, our clients eat in their cells. The food that comes from packages is often the only food they have regular access to. Food from packages can also be important connections to community. Mass-market vendors and the prisons themselves rarely carry foods with any nutritional value or cultural significance. It can mean everything to a person to receive a package of, for example, their favorite Korean snack mixes or a package of plantain chips that can ground a person in good memories and give them additional reasons to stay focused and hopeful.
A Proposed Change
One of our PAC members, Diamond B., wrote to us with a change to the packages policy that reflects what SRLP has been hearing for years: ” transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex women in men’s prisons should have the same rights that women in a women’s prison have.” We would add that the same should apply to TGNCI people in women’s prisons. Diamond’s proposed policy would include:
Access to “Hair Care Products: vented hair brush, clear hair dryer, a curling iron, etc. and Apparel, women’s: pajamas (night gowns), tank top, t-shirts (short/long-sleeve), thermals, underwear, bras, socks, etc.”
SRLP strongly supports such a policy and will make sure that these needs are heard in our coalition.
What You Can Do
You can help us keep up the pressure on DOCCS by joining the coalitional website and sharing the hashtag #PackagingLove or #tellDOCCSno to ensure that whatever new policy they come up with is shaped by those most affected – the people inside and their loved ones.