At a farm stand outside Sing Sing, a new rule on packages in prisons brings big change.


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Standing outside Sing Sing prison last Sunday, Stephanie Rivera looked on as her 8-year-old son bit into the side of a cucumber and grinned.

It was a last stop before they got back in the car for the hour-long drive home to Long Island after a visit with her husband inside.

Since last year, the farm stand has been open every third weekend outside the walls of the Ossining prison — with volunteers handing out free bags of fresh produce that visitors can bring in to their loved ones.

But as of Monday, visitors are no longer be able to bring the fresh produce inside. A recent order from New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, restricts people from mailing or bringing care packages of food to people in prison.

It’s a big shift for this little produce stand — a joint initiative between the abolitionist farmer collective Sweet Freedom Farm, upriver, and the Sing Sing Family Collective.

Going forward, incarcerated people can only get two packages a year — and those must be delivered through the mail, not in person. Any food must be sent through a third party vendor. It will have a big impact on incarcerated people’s ability to eat fresh and specialty food. For their loved ones, it will mean higher costs and more complications, they say.

Greg Mingo, 69, was released in September, after 40 years in prison. Now he comes out every month to volunteer at the stand. “You know, everybody needs food. Times are hard.” he said. “We know about the economy, the situation. It's really hard on families. So this helps.”

He said, even if the food can’t be brought in to people inside, he and the others will still be out there, making it available to their families.

He worries that having to ship produce through a vendor means the end of fresh items for those inside.

“That's why they call them perishables,” he said. “By the time they get it, a lot of it may not be any good.”

The aim is to stop drugs and weapons

DOCCS spokesperson Nicole Sheremeta said the pivot in policy aims to cut down on drugs and weapons being smuggled into the facilities. In a statement, DOCCS wrote that 290 packages were found to contain contraband in 2019 during package room examinations. In 2020, that number jumped to 924 packages containing contraband.

In the first half of 2021, officials found 577 packages concealing contraband, suggesting another record year occurred. The statement pointed out that contraband that is not confiscated can further lead to violence and drug issues.

Including the contraband that’s found in packages, the total number of contraband drugs and weapons discovered in state prisons has dropped from 5,837 to 5,475 between 2019 and 2020. Items listed as weapons include things like toothbrushes and can lids, which may or may not have been intended for violence.

Mingo and others who had spent time in the facilities were skeptical that banning packages will keep contraband out.

“You might have isolated instances,” Mingo said. “But for the most part, when the package arrives at the facility it's opened up, it's examined, checked and everything. And so when you come down to pick up the package, it's in paper bags already.”

Queens Assembly member David Weprin said he is also skeptical the ban will reduce smuggling. He said DOCCS won’t provide his office with any data to back up their claims of contraband coming in through packages in increasing amounts. He and State Senator Julia Salazar recently authored an editorial, opposing the ban.

“The packages you send are already subject to multiple types of screening and searches. In fact, my office is constantly in contact with incarcerated individuals and their families regarding missing items from care packages.” he said. “We need more accountability in the mail rooms, not a blanket ban on families who want to support their loved ones.”

Weprin stopped by the farm stand Sunday to speak out against the policy.

“This directive will impose unnecessary fees on families and will significantly diminish access to fresh foods, homemade goods and religious articles for those who are incarcerated,” Weprin said”

He added that DOCCS is sending a message: “They believe the contraband coming into facilities is coming through the packages you send to your loved ones. I can't just take their word for it. I want proof. And so far they've failed to share the data behind this decision”

“It’s going to be a lot more money.”

Incarcerated people and their loved ones said they will suffer in many ways after produce and other packages are banned.

Joseph Wilson and his wife Renee Wilson co-founded the Sing Sing Family Collective. Gothamist went to visit Joseph the last day before the ban went into effect. Families stood in line to get in, clutching bags and suitcases full of food items for their loved ones.

Wilson said the measure feels unfairly punitive.

“Zero percent of packages my family sent had contraband items,” he said. “So why are they being punished?”

Wilson pointed out that if DOCCS is finding more contraband in packages, that’s evidence the system works — the contraband was found.

Activist Wilfredo Laracuente feels similarly. He spent 10 years in Sing Sing. He’s worried that severing one more connection between those inside and their families is going to increase stress and conflict, and destabilize family bonds, hurting reentry efforts.

“The data is very clear. It says that if you have a strong support circle, and you have family that's behind you or coming to see you and bringing packages, that’s going to enable your reentry process upon your release.”

He said a package serves as a reminder that someone outside cares for you. “It creates a more humanistic component. You get to embrace your humanity.”

As she watched her son with his cucumber, Stephanie Rivera said she worries that vendors may not take EBT cards and will charge for shipping. They may also send items in multiple shipments, which can put prisoners over the limit on the number of packages you can get in a time period.

“It’s just basically a lot more money and a lot more work for us to do so we can try to make sure that the guys eat.” she shook her head. “It’s going to be very stressful.”

A refined approach to an unpopular idea.

An earlier attempt at restricting packages into prisons failed in 2018, after intense public backlash.

Amy Peterson is a member of a larger coalition fighting the package ban, using the hashtag #BringBackCarePackages. She said the big difference between that 2018 initiative and this one is that the last attempt included books, and it only allowed the use of a handful of vendors, severely limiting options.

“There were maybe like 40 books to choose from,” she said. “It was really outrageous, and that really got people's attention.”

But she said DOCCS learned from that failure.

“When they instituted this [current] ban, they very carefully studied the response to the last one. And so they said this doesn't apply to books, and they tried to make some alterations that make it seem not as terrible.” she said. “They were sort of very careful to think about what the criticisms were gonna be.”

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