ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The New York prison system is making big changes to care packages. Books, clothes and homemade food from the outside are no longer allowed. Instead, everything has to come from a few designated private companies. This is a pilot program that is starting in three New York prisons before likely expanding to the rest of the state. Taylor Eldridge is an investigative fellow with The Marshall Project who's been reporting on this. Welcome.
TAYLOR ELDRIDGE: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Prison operators argue that drugs, weapons and other contraband come in through care packages. And they say that these pre-approved items from private companies eliminate that risk - so they're clear radios, packages of ramen, sweatpants, things like that. So what's the problem with doing it that way?
ELDRIDGE: Right. So these companies, they do offer items that would be, in theory, contraband-proof. Like, they're preapproved by the prisons. They're sealed. But the issue that a lot of families face is, one, you know, these companies require you to go online and order from an online catalog and use a credit card. And if you don't have, you know, access to the Internet or a credit card, it can make it really difficult to even send your loved one a simple thing.
And also, there's a limited selection. You can't go to your, you know, local corner store or your grocery store and pick something that you know your loved one likes or, you know, their favorite brand of chips or something like that. So it really restricts the opportunity to connect with your incarcerated loved one.
SHAPIRO: How does the price of items in these catalogs compare to what you'd find at a typical corner store?
ELDRIDGE: Well, you know, it really depends on where you are incarcerated. So it can be cheaper in some instances to order it through these private companies. But in many cases, the items are marked up significantly higher than what you would find at your local retail store. You know, a pair of boxers could be $3 in one location and $7 in another location for the exact same quality boxer.
SHAPIRO: How important are care packages to a prisoner's life? It seems like it ought to be a luxury, not a necessity, right?
ELDRIDGE: Right. You would think that. But in my experience from talking to you, you know, many families and advocates, a lot of inmates depend on these care packages for either the necessities like toilet paper, undergarments, deodorant, things like that, or for food. Some people are not able to eat the food that the prisons serve due to dietary restrictions or religious needs, and they depend on the food that their families send them from the outside. So restricting that to these private companies really limits what inmates can do.
SHAPIRO: How big of a business is the private care package industry?
ELDRIDGE: It's big. I mean, if you think about how big the corrections industry is in this country, then just think of all those facilities need packages coming in for their inmates. So it's across the country these companies are striking these lucrative contracts with correctional agencies.
SHAPIRO: It seems like if a few companies have basically the monopoly on care packages in a huge prison system, that's a lot of money.
ELDRIDGE: It is. It's hundreds of millions of dollars.
SHAPIRO: Other states have tried policies like this. How have they gone over?
ELDRIDGE: They have gone over pretty well. I mean, there are states that are making, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars each year off of the care package program alone, though that money is supposed to go back into the corrections agencies and go into funds that help inmates who are poor and things like that. But in other states, there hasn't been as much pushback as there has been in New York state over this change.
SHAPIRO: Why do you think there is so much pushback in New York state?
ELDRIDGE: Well, to be honest, New York state had pretty flexible package rules before this change. You know, the fact that you could literally bring fresh fruit and vegetables to someone in one of these state prisons is something that I had not seen reporting across the country. So I think making people go from being able to deliver fresh food and restricting it to these six companies now is just a dramatic change. And it - there's not clear motivation behind it. And I think that's definitely part of why people are so resistant to it.
SHAPIRO: Taylor Eldridge of The Marshall Project, thanks for joining us.
ELDRIDGE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.