These new restrictions arose after a decision last year to ban all physical mail from entering Department of Corrections facilities (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images).
Missouri inmates will no longer be able to receive books from friends or family under a new policy adopted by the state Department of Corrections.
These new restrictions arose after a decision last year to ban all physical mail from entering DOC facilities. The DOC cites contraband and illicit substances arriving through these channels as the reason for the new policy.
Under the revised rules, if an inmate wants to purchase a book, the payment amount must be sent by friends or family for a fee to the inmate’s account. The inmate can then purchase the book through an approved vendor.
The change in policy has prompted significant backlash, especially from prisoner advocacy groups. They believe it is an attempt by the Department of Corrections to further cut off inmates from the outside world, limiting their contact with friends and loved ones.
Lori Curry, executive director of Missouri Prison Reform, said if she ordered a book for an inmate, it would be through a distributor like Amazon to ship directly to the prison.
“They’re citing drugs as the reason for this new policy, which makes no sense unless they’re accusing Amazon of, you know, doing drugs and books,” Curry said. “It’s very concerning to us.”
According to a spokesperson from the DOC, people were fabricating packages that had been tampered with to look like vendor mail. Some packages even arrived with a printed receipt, said Karen Pojmann, the communications director for the DOC, in an emailed statement.
She said prison officials have discovered books and magazines with pages soaked in K2, methamphetamine and fentanyl. She said books have been shipped with suboxone strips hidden in the spines.
Soaked pages have even been found in the cells of unresponsive inmates, creating safety issues for prison staff who have suffered toxic reactions after handling the materials, Pojmann said.
The department is adamant that this is not a book ban. There are “no new restrictions on the number or types of books, newspapers or magazines that people in prison can purchase, borrow, access or read,” Pojmann said.
“Books, periodicals and other publications are readily available through our canteens, in our facility libraries, in chapel libraries and on offender tablets,” Pojmann said.
Curry and others, however, argue that measures to control drug contraband have not resulted in a reduction of prisoner overdoses and deaths.
“Since they did that (implemented the mail ban), overdoses have increased, deaths from overdoses have increased,” Curry said.
Critics also claim the DOC effort to ban mail and make new rules around books is a futile effort to combat the way drugs are actually entering prisons.
“Our stance has always been that the majority of drugs and other contraband coming into prisons is not from mail,” Curry said.
Dylan Pyles, who helps run a prison books program called Liberation Lit, said the new restrictions reflect a lack of transparency from the DOC around overdose deaths in prison.
“Every incarcerated person we talk to basically is concerned that we’re pinning this contraband issue on mail. They took away physical mail last year,” Pyles said. “We’re pinning it on books. They take away books.”
The DOC is quick to point out that prisoners’ families can still send money to prisoners’ accounts, which can be used to purchase books.
But critics say prisoners have limited ways to acquire income, and purchasing a book with the small amount of money they receive would be an out-of-reach luxury. The possibility that an inmate can afford a book “is pretty ridiculous,” Pyles said
“Most who are incarcerated are saving up to purchase items from the commissary like hygiene items,” Pyles said. “If someone is going to get books, it’s going to be because a family member or a prison books program or somebody is sending them one as, like, a gift.”
The Department of Corrections believes friends, family and advocates should “take one additional step when funding the purchase of publications for incarcerated people,” Pojmann said, adding that it could save lives.
Amy Breihan is the co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Missouri Office. She said “publications are a lifeline for a lot of folks.”
“We want to treat them humanely. We don’t want them to be worse off coming out by being socially isolated, which is really devastating to one’s mental health, by being denied educational opportunities. This is a pretty shocking new policy,” Breihan said.
The DOC says anyone interested in the quality and variety of books in prison libraries can contact its Library Services department about making a donation. General library services are located in 21 adult facilities, according to the department.
This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.
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