Matthew Keer’s Prisoner Reading, Singapore 1942 (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Governor Andrew Cuomo has struck down a new set of rules severely restricting what types of books and other goods inmates in New York State prisons can receive. Though Cuomo said he was calling for the program to be rescinded, Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state prison system was more tentative, telling the New York Daily News that the directive would be suspended until the concerns of inmates’ families could be more adequately addressed.

The controversial directive was ostensibly intended to cut down on the contraband entering New York State prisons. Issued in December and brought to light earlier this month, it would have only allowed inmates access to goods from six state-approved vendors, which did not include Books Through Bars. The directive would not only severely cut down on the types of books available to the state’s more than 52,000 inmates — it forbids donated or used books, and approved vendors have very limited book offerings — but also forbid warm clothes like hoodies and scarves, fresh fruits and vegetables, or canned foods of any kind.  However, following widespread outcry from the public and prison reform activists, Governor Cuomo announced on Friday, January 12, that he had advised the New York State Department of Correctional and Community Services — which had begun a pilot version of the program before a planned statewide rollout in September — to abandon the program.

“I am directing the Dept. of Corrections to rescind its flawed pilot program that restricted shipment of books & care packages to inmates,” Cuomo tweeted. “Concerns from families need to be addressed, while we redouble efforts to fight prison contraband.”

Advocates for inmates’ rights voiced more pointed criticisms of the pilot program. Tina Luongo from the Legal Aid Society told the New York Daily News that the directive “results in price-gouging, creates anger, and fosters hopelessness in already volatile prisons, and interferes with their ability to maintain meaningful relations with the community back home.”

According to the Daily News, inmates at Green Haven Correctional Facility — one of the prisons where the program was being tested — staged a protest of the new directive, refusing to eat in the prison’s mess hall or complete their work assignments. “That [inmates] came together for this says something about this was the end for them,” Caroline Hsu, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, told the Daily News. “This program would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I hope the prison system appreciates that when they go re-evaluate this.”

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...