By Mansa Musa, The Real News
The prison-industrial complex has many ways of turning the incarceration of human beings into a profitable business model. In New York state, new regulations targeting care packages for prisoners show this logic at work. Friends and families of incarcerated people can no longer send packages containing food to those inside, and are now limited to sending two “non-food packages” a year, purchased from pre-approved, third-party vendors. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa interviews writer Molly Hagan about this draconian new policy and her recent report for The Appeal, “New York’s Prison Package Ban Places New Burdens on the Incarcerated.”
Molly Hagan is a writer based in New York City, who has taught creative writing at the Women’s Prison Association.
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. First, let’s report on Eddie Conway. Eddie Conway is doing great. We expect to have Eddie Conway home either in July or early August, and hopefully he’ll be back in this space or making a contribution in some shape, form, or fashion.
When we think about the prison-industrial complex and all the problems that are associated with it, we’ve explored multiple things that go on with it. But here today to talk about one of the most draconian policies to come out in the past year is Molly Hagan. And she’s going to talk about the restrictions or the change in the prison policy that allows prisoners’ families to provide fresh vegetables and foods for prisoners in the New York State Prison. And we want to acknowledge right out the gate that we recognize, and we did a series on this about food and the type of foods that’s being served to prisoners, and the fact that there’s no nutritional value whatsoever to them. Any effort to provide nutrition outside of the commissary, which very rarely provides any type of nutritional value, should be supported. But here to talk about this is Molly. Molly works as a creative writer. She’s in New York City. Molly, introduce yourself to the Rattling the Bars viewers.
Molly Hagan: Hi, I’m Molly Hagan. Thanks Mansa, thanks so much for having me. I’m Molly Hagan, and I wrote a piece about New York State’s new prison package policy for The Appeal.
Mansa Musa: All right, now let’s just jump right into it. This is the background: New York recently came up with a repeal of a policy which allowed prisoners’ families to provide fresh vegetables and other fresh nutritional value foods to prisoners at no cost to the Department of Correction, at no cost to the State of New York, but money’s coming out of their pocket. And they had a system that they were going through to check and make sure that they met the requirements. And the requirements, being like all things within the prison-industrial complex, are rigid. So they were able to overcome the rigidity of the policy. But they came up with this policy. Now, prior to them coming up with this policy, to your knowledge, how long had this package program been in existence, to your knowledge?
Molly Hagan: Well, the new policy was announced in late April. So previous to May of this year, people in prison were allowed to receive two packages of food totalling 35 pounds every month. And under these new rules that went into effect at some facilities in New York State in May, they can’t receive any fresh food packages from family and friends. All packages have to come through third party vendors. And on top of that, they’re only allowed two non-food packages every year.
Mansa Musa: And in terms of the allowance, how was this received by the prison population throughout New York State?
Molly Hagan: I think there was a lot of alarm. I was getting emails from women at Bedford Hills. I think the alarm also came from the fact that New York State tried to put through a similar policy in 2018, and there’s some interesting relationship between these two policies. In 2018, New York State tried to say families and support systems, people who communicate with people on the inside, couldn’t send any packages at all, and further, had to go through a list of six approved vendors. And so there was an outcry when that policy was instated. I think a lot of groups found a way to organize against it because it was very directly benefiting six specific companies and keeping Union Supply, major corporations in the prison industry. And there were a lot of actual writers groups, like PEN of America, who organized because the listed groups and vendors had a pretty lousy selection of books. So this policy caused a major uproar in New York State, and then Governor Cuomo rescinded it after 10 days. So I think that when I was receiving emails about this policy, people in prison were afraid that it was just a redo of that policy.
Mansa Musa: And we recognize that they’re famous for that. We recognize that based on what you’re saying that this food package program has been in existence at least four or five years prior to them trying to get rid of it, and then ultimately getting rid of it. So in terms of that, how cost effective was this as far as for the system? Because family members are providing food for prisoners. That means that it would stand to reason that if I’m getting fresh vegetables and fresh food, I would no longer need to go into the [inaudible] or kitchen. And that means, ultimately, the kitchen budget is going to shrink. Because they’re going to make the connection, any way they can save a penny. To your knowledge, has this program been successful in terms of one, providing healthier food for prisoners, and two helping prisoners’ families maintain a relationship between them and their loved ones?
Molly Hagan: You were talking about the two food packages every month?
Mansa Musa: Yes.
Molly Hagan: Right. I think it was an excellent policy. Everyone seemed to be very happy with it. There are groups, like there’s a group called Sweet Freedom Farm Collective upstate, and they have a farmer’s market outside of Sing Sing Facility where families can come pick up free fresh vegetables and bring them inside. I think people were just very, very happy with the way this policy was working. And it was the only reliable way that people in prison had any access to fresh food.
Mansa Musa: Okay. First, let’s explore this. In the article, you said that the allegations that’s being made as to why the policy is being changed is because the system, the prison-industrial complex, the fascists, are alleging that these packages, these two food packages, are being used to smuggle contraband into the institution. And that not only the contraband is creating a problem for security, but it’s also causing an uptick in violence. All right. To your knowledge, is it a correlation between these packages and what they’re alleging? Or is this just some arbitrary, bogus position they’re taking in order to justify taking something that’s helping family members and prisoners?
Molly Hagan: Right. I have yet to see a relationship between the food packages people bring when they visit their loved one in prison and the violence and contraband issue. The families that I talked to felt very much that this policy felt like a punishment. It felt like retaliation. Some of them use the word retaliation for the new HALT Solitary Confinement Act. Corrections officers have been talking for years about their frustrations with this act that will limit the use of solitary confinement as punishment. It’s not directly stated in the memo, but representatives from corrections officers’ unions have said something to this effect, which is that they need new ways to punish people. And that when you can’t put people in solitary confinement, you can deprive them of other things. So I think families definitely interpret the policy that way.
And then what I thought was really interesting was that no family member I spoke to said that, oh, contraband drugs or weapons or whatever, never comes through packages. They said it happens extremely rarely. But they’re like, the idea that this policy banning those packages would have any serious effect on what’s going on inside prisons is ludicrous. They’re incredulous about it.
Mansa Musa: Yeah. And also, we recognize from the article, and you can speak on this, is that we had the institution locked down all of 2020 because of COVID. A lot of restrictions were on it from March of 2020 to December of 2020. And we had serious limitations and restrictions on movement of prisoners and families’ access to them. Much less a family member coming all the way, traveling nearly eight hours to get to see someone and then being turned away. That the overdoses and violence had increased during this period. Can you speak on this? And is this an indication that maybe the source or the source of the contraband is primarily the guards or staff?
Molly Hagan: Yeah. First I’ll say that, anecdotally, every family member that I talked to said the primary source of the contraband is the guards themselves. It of course is very difficult to find documentation that definitively proves this. But we did find that in 2020, as you’re saying, when for most of the year New York State prisons were closed to visitors, and then – Also I will say, families I talked to during that time shifted to using third party vendors. There were drugs still in the prisons, which we know because of officer use of Narcan rose during that time.
Mansa Musa: All right. And we also recognize that. And I’ve served 48 years in prison prior to being released. I’ve been out all of two years. I was in the Maryland prison system. And I can definitively say that guards were bringing contraband in. This is public information. In the detention center in Baltimore city, they had an organized crime ring where the officers from the major on down were running interference for someone that was providing and issuing drugs to people. We had incidents where they closed the whole institution down and found out that the guards were the major source. So this is not something that’s not known.
But let’s examine the cause behind the whole thing. And I think that we need to flush this point out. It’s a known fact that the way prisons are controlled is through fear and punishment. And if they can’t have fear and punishment, then they feel like they don’t have any control. Programs are not something that they offer. This new task force, in terms of their recognition of wanting to have the solitary confinement unit, have you, in your knowledge, or do you know of any relationship between the unions and this security group or goon squad, as we call it, this goon squad. Is there any relationship between the union, this goon squad, and some of the vendors that they’re offering? Because then the alternative is that you have to use an external vendor. And in most cases, the vendors monetize and they privatize the services that are being offered to prisoners, causing the prisoner’s family to have to spend more money, and prisoners get poor services. To your knowledge, is there correlation between the union and this particular bill and the private industries that they’re marketing for family members to use?
Molly Hagan: In this particular instance, I haven’t found a correlation, but it is an open question that a lot of policies that are supported by correction officers’ unions that are about safety, ostensibly, also benefit private companies that will come in and say, if there are drug-soaked papers, like letters that are soaked in drugs coming into the prison, we’ll digitize those for you so that the drugs won’t come in on the paper. You can view the digital letter instead. I mean, there is that correlation that begs that question. And that is something I’m very interested in. But there is nothing that I can definitively say that –
Mansa Musa: Well, it’s not far-fetched to believe that when you have a situation… I remember a situation like this. I remember when I was incarcerated, the former commissioner of correction, once he was no longer the commissioner of correction, he had created a mechanism where he could provide prisoners with sports apparel. He had contracted with a sports apparel company on the street, and he had used his network of being a former commissioner to provide sports apparel for prisoners. And when I was talking to him, he said that when he was a commissioner, he noticed that the number one thing that most of us were trying to get was tennis shoes, sweatshirts, and sports apparel. So he seen it was a market and he opened that door and created it. So it’s not far-fetched to believe that the unions and these private corporations have some type of merger in terms of understanding, well, if you get this policy to pass, we’ll support your union, make financial contributions.
That’s not a theory. That’s an actual fact that I know for a fact, based on my own personal experience and based on the fact that we found out that the telephone companies that were being used for providing phone service for prisoners, the institution was getting 40% of the kickback from the services. So it’s not unrealistic to believe that this policy, it’s premeditated on the part of the union to get this reversed so they can maintain a healthy relationship with corporate America that’s benefiting from the prison-industrial complex. Let’s talk about what can be done, or what’s some of the things that you think that can be done to try to educate and try to change or reverse this policy. Because this policy as it exists now is only further repressing people. And we already recognize that prisoners are not getting no nutritional value foods while they’re incarcerated. We recognize that. So what are some of the things that you think should be done and can be done, from your own personal experience or what people are telling you, that you’re networking with that’s incarcerated?
Molly Hagan: Well, what I can say is that there is some investigation into this, some political investigation into the new policy, questions about who exactly the prison violence task force is. I tried to get the physical document of recommendations that recommended this policy, and there isn’t one. So I think to dig into those things, because what really frustrates me about this policy is that what I’m hearing from people inside is that not only will this policy limit and in some cases wipe out their connection to fresh food, it will also make the problems that are in the prisons worse. I’m hearing there is drug abuse, there is violence, but what that speaks to is deprivation and punishment. And is the answer more deprivation and punishment? So I think that’s a question that needs to be asked.
And then also I think people need to understand that when an individual is incarcerated, you’re also incarcerating a family and a support network. And whole communities are drained of wealth. I talked to a guy who just got out of prison. I think he served about 12 years. He’s studying to become a nutritionist. And he is saying, we’re looking at generational health problems that come from the poor nutrition of the food in prison. So it’s about food, but it’s about so much more. And the policy affects people outside the prison walls.
Mansa Musa: And that’s a good point that you raised earlier, and I noticed from my own personal experience, when they restricted and took certain things that we were allowed to get, it created a more hostile prison environment. But in terms of the things that they’re alleging that’s problematic that’s coming allegedly from these packages coming in, drugs and violence, what are some of the things that this system is doing to prevent – Okay, now you still got violence and you still got drugs, you don’t have a package – To your knowledge, what are some of the things that they’re doing to deal with the real issue, as opposed to band-aiding the problem? To your knowledge, are they providing programs that deal with helping people understand their disease of addiction and giving them alternatives? Do they have alternatives to violence groups? Are they providing the mechanisms to take away the pressures that people are feeling from not having no money or not having the ability to provide for themselves? Are they creating things of these natures?
Molly Hagan: Not that I’ve heard of. When I asked that question to some people that I talked to, I was told that the programs in prison are punitive themselves, which isn’t helpful if you understand addiction or any mental health need, punishment is an ineffective way to address it. So I feel like the programs that do exist are limited in who can access them and not very effective. And so it really just feels that the solution to the problem of violence, which is really, like I said, the problem of violence is really you’re addressing deprivation and despair. The idea that more punishment would be the answer is –
Mansa Musa: Yeah. Yeah. More deprivation and despair would create a better environment for everybody. And the other part, like you say, we recognize, as you stated so astutely, that this is not only… It’s collateral damage. You have family members that’s affected. But then that’s the other part about it. The prison environment doesn’t become safe, so the staff is subjected to it. And not every officer that works in the prison system is brutal, hostile, and opposed to helping the prisoners, doing productive things on their behalf. But when you have these gestapo type units that come into existence primarily to profit from the prison-industrial complex, then they set the tempo, and the repression, the deprivation that comes out of these acts, only thing it does is make the prison environment much more hostile than it would be.
And I remember that when I was locked up, a guy was telling one of the wardens, they would say, man, when you’re dealing with violence, we might start out hurting each other, internal violence, but ultimately we turn the violence onto the oppressor. Because we recognize, at some point in time, we recognize, say, oh, the reason why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling is because I’m being deprived of my basic human rights. And because I’m being deprived of my basic [rights], I’m going to demand them. And when you do anything other than meet my demand, then I’m going to respond with violence, because that’s going to get the attention I need to get the changes. And it’s not by design, it’s not about my interest in being pathological. It’s about me recognizing that unless I do something about this, I’m going to die, and I’m going to die a horrible death because the deprivation is going to ultimately consume me.
Let me get off this soap box. And let me ask you this here, Molly, what do you think will ultimately result? How do we ultimately resolve this matter in terms of getting the society and the public at large to really hone in on? Because we recognize that these taxpayers’ dollars are, the family members, they’re paying for it, they’re paying the officers’ wages, they’re paying for the existence of Sing Sing and Clinton and these others by their tax dollars. So what do you think that can be done from the family members in terms of trying to get this policy changed? And we’ve seen it done before. What do you think can be done at this juncture? If you have any views on that.
Molly Hagan: I think in terms of this particular policy… It’s tough, because as I was saying about the 2018 policy, there were very clear issues to organize around. And this policy, even though it will ultimately have the same effect, is written in a more ambiguous way. So the previous policy said you can only send packages, you can only buy from these six vendors. So this policy clearly is funneling money to these vendors. This policy says you can go through any vendor, you can go through any vendor you want. Which, families argue, they will ultimately end up going through places like Union Supply, because those are the companies that specialize in the package restrictions for prison. So you have that. But it’s harder to bring groups on board to say specifically, definitively, this further puts money in the pockets of corporations.
And then also, the book thing. It was great for PEN of America, for large publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker to be able to headline books and education, people organized around that. This, I don’t think it’s impossible, I just think it will be a lot more difficult. I think there’s a lot of organization around the food aspect of the policy. But I do think in general, people need to understand how it touches on all the issues that the 2018 policy did. It touches on that prison is an industry in itself. And that in many ways, the person in prison is the subject of that, they’re being extracted from. And when you extract wealth from a person in prison, you’re also extracting from their family. So I think compelling things to people who may not be super familiar with how prison works is this idea of prison as a larger industry, beyond a private prison that makes money in itself, state prisons in New York, every aspect of communication with someone in prison, every aspect of your life is monetized in this way. I think that’s really compelling and disturbing to people. And then also, like I said, when you put someone in prison, you’re not punishing an individual person, you’re punishing families and communities, that you’re really talking about webs of extraction, I guess.
Mansa Musa: And you know what, we recognize that we have a quasi-privatization of prisons. Because as you outline, all the support mechanisms that exist are privatized: communication, visitation, ability to send money in. And now these packages, it’s not unusual. I was thinking that, have you heard the conversation around… Because we had done this in the state of Maryland when they said we had to get certain vendors. Guys that got out and people that got out, they created a business, and they utilized that, and they, in some cases, got approval from the Department of Correction to allow them to be one of the vendors. Have you heard the conversation around that? Because I recognized in your article, there were a lot of support groups. So has that conversation been had about, okay, let’s take the farmers market, let’s do a coalition and put it together and pitch it as this is an alternative or this is a vendor that family members want to use? And we can go right back to square one, saying people give them free food, family members not being charged an exorbitant amount, money’s going back into keeping the cooperative alive. Have you heard a conversation about that? Or is this something that you think a conversation should be held up around?
Molly Hagan: I have not. And I know of at least one small company in New York that was founded by formerly incarcerated people. I’m not sure that would be a worthwhile direction. I’m not in charge of the activism around this. But because I do feel that it’s still extracting and it’s still separating, even in good faith, is severing a connection between the person in prison and their support system. A lot of families talk to me about going to the grocery store or the farmer’s market and hand picking vegetables for their loved one. Caroline in the article, her husband loves avocados. She loves to bring him avocados. It’s like, you just want to have, especially when you’re separated physically, you want to be able to have some connection, some sense of normalcy of like, I brought you these groceries. And I think that’s a really important aspect that people need to understand too. It’s not just about the money. It’s another thing that isolates people in prison from the outside.
Mansa Musa: For the humanizing. All right Molly, you have the last word on this subject matter. What would you like to close with?
Molly Hagan: I think I would say that I am concerned that this policy not only doesn’t address the problems it says it’s supposed to address, but might actually make these problems worse, and make life inside more difficult for everybody. And that I think is the takeaway.
Mansa Musa: There you have it, the real news from Molly about the repressive, inhumane treatment of prisoners in New York. Remember, Attica came out of New York. And it was because of the repressive dehumanization of the prisoners of Attica that they rebelled against those conditions. And here we are in 2022, revisiting the same inhumane and repressive conditions to the extent that they will not allow our family members to provide us with fresh foods, foods that they don’t provide. There wouldn’t be a need to provide fresh foods and vegetables and these things if the system was providing them. And mind you, the system is getting money for providing these things. Here we have it again, the real news about how unions, gestapo type units in prisons, are regulating and delegating policies and procedures.
Continue to support the efforts that’s being made by the family members of the New York prison system. You can review the article that Molly wrote. There’s a lot of support groups in there that you might want to look at. Molly, what’s your contact information, if anybody wants to contact you about it?
Molly Hagan: Oh, I’m on Twitter. It’s @mollyhagan_. Yeah. Contact me there.
Mansa Musa: Okay. Yeah. And thank you, Molly. We really enjoyed this conversation.
Molly Hagan: Yeah, thank you so much.
Mansa Musa: And hopefully, The Real News listeners and Rattling the Bars viewers will support this effort that’s being made on behalf of the family members and the prisoners of New York city. We ask you to continue to support The Real News and continue to support Rattling the Bars. If you have any information or if you have anything that you would like us to explore or examine, just feel free to contact us at The Real News. I’m Mansa Musa, signing off, co-host with Eddie Conway. And continue to give us the support that you have been giving us. And thank you very much, Molly.