Daily News: N.Y. Jail Program Forces Families to Buy from OInline Vendors That Overcharge for Basic Items Sent to Inmates

Caroline Hsu, Staff Attorney with our Prisoners’ Rights Project, criticized a recent state Department of Corrections pilot program that forces visitors to buy supplies for incarcerated family members from five online vendors that overcharge on simple items.

New York Daily News
New York launched the pilot program at three correctional facilities, where families must buy from selected vendors to send goods to inmates
By Reuven Blau
December 18, 2017

Infuriating inmate advocates, the state Department of Corrections has launched a pilot program that forces visitors to buy supplies for loved ones behind bars from five online vendors that they say overcharge for simple items.

State officials maintain the vendor system — expected to go statewide by fall 2018 — will reduce contraband being smuggled into facilities.

Previously, friends and relatives were allowed to bring prisoners clothing, books and canned food items during visits or send them through the mail.

Officers search the packages before handing them over to prisoners.

But earlier this month, the state launched a pilot program at three correctional facilities: Greene, Green Haven and Taconic.

Friends and relatives of prisoners at those locations now must use one of the selected vendors to send goods.

But the online vendors charge more for many basic items compared with Costco or dollar stores in some cases, inmate advocates say.

As an example, Nabisco Oreo chocolate sandwich cookies can be bought for $2.99 at Target or for comparable prices at other stores in New York City.

But they cost $5.65 at E-Ford Commissary and $5.90 at Walkenhorst, two of the five approved vendors. The other vendors are Keefe, JL Marcus and Union Supply.

Similarly, a Kool-Aid 19 oz. Drink Mix costs $1.50 at a South Slope Brooklyn 99-cent store, but $4.75 at the E-Ford commissary.

Families who personally deliver packages will also now be required to pay an online fee in many cases.

“For many families who are trying to stay in touch with their loved ones, it really adds up, and they are counting every penny to survive,” said Caroline Hsu, a staff attorney with Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. “It’s just really mean.”

State officials say the prices are fair and the secure vendor program is used by almost 30 other jurisdictions throughout the country. Still, elderly parents and loved ones often struggle with shopping online, inmate advocates point out.

“It would be really hard ... nearly impossible for some people who have elderly folks,” said Patricia Howard, 57, who was released from Taconic Correctional Facility in September.

Additionally, prisoners will no longer be able to have fresh fruit or produce delivered to supplement their diets because those products do not appear to be sold by the vendors.

But the system will be a financial boon for the vendors, predicted Stanley Richards, executive vice president of the Fortune Society, a group that helps former prisoners.

“They will have 58,000 people they know will be their consumers,” he said. “They don’t need to be competitive in terms of prices and the service they deliver.”

The vendors were selected after they responded to a request for proposals from the state.

Inmate advocates contend state corrections officers should do a better job searching packages brought by visitors to cut down on contraband.

This article originally appeared in New York Daily News.