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ACLU of Md. asks state to end new prison book policy

Prison officials say policy prevents drug smuggling, violence

Maryland prison officials violate the First Amendment rights of prisoners by severely limiting their access to books, including literary classics that explore the human condition and would assist in the convicts’ rehabilitation, the ACLU of Maryland stated in a letter Thursday urging the state’s head of corrections to end the restrictions.

“Books play an important role in transcending the inherent monotony and isolation of prison and are frequently recognized for their transformative impact when people are separated from the outside world,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter wrote. “Depriving prisoners of opportunities to read and limiting their ability to do so is fundamentally at odds with the rehabilitative ideal.”

Under the new policy, announced in an April memo, prisoners can only order books through two approved vendors with limited titles instead of ordering through third-party vendors such as Amazon. Prisoners may also possess only 10 books and have access to prison libraries, which have limited selections, the ACLU stated.

Officials from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services say the policy is aimed at preventing drugs, including opioids and Suboxone, a medication that helps people quit opioids, from being smuggled into prisons. The drugs, which can be as thin as breath strips, can be sold on the black market in prisons and produce a high that makes inmates susceptible to violence, according to the department.

The ACLU requested the department respond by June 11 to its request to rescind the policy and implicitly held out the possibility that the rights group could file suit if the deadline is not met.

“We’re considering all available options,” Sonia Kumar, an ACLU attorney who signed the letter, said in an interview. “We don’t typically make demands like this unless we are prepared to take legal action.”

The department issued a statement Thursday saying Secretary Stephen T. Moyer and agency attorneys are reviewing the letter.

“At this time, there is no intent to change the department’s decision, which ensures inmates have access to books in a safe manner,” the department said. “Drugs smuggled into our institutions fuel prison violence, and the safety of our officers, staff and those in our custody remains paramount.”

The state’s prison libraries contain 129,000 books, and prisons receive 10,000 books per year in donations and spend about $16,000 annually for new books, according to the department. The two approved vendors also carry about 15,000 titles available for shipment, the department added.

But the ACLU questioned the department’s defense of its policy, saying it does not explain why direct shipments from a mass book distributor such as Amazon would present a risk of smuggled contraband. The letter also stated a library system does not assuage First Amendment concerns.

“The limited selections at … prison libraries and the challenges prisoners face in accessing what is available in their respective libraries fail to come close to compensating for this extraordinary loss of access to the broader world of books,” the ACLU wrote. “Nor is access to a library book – which is time-limited, must be returned, and can’t be marked up – equivalent to possessing it.”

The group also called the 10-book limit arbitrary and unduly limiting.

“All this accomplishes is to turn books into contraband,” the letter states. “Surely, the state prison system can do better.”

The policy’s First Amendment violation also extends beyond the prisoners to include the authors and publishers whose written works cannot be read by Maryland inmates due to the department’s “draconian,” “senseless” and “harsh” restrictions, the ACLU added.

“And, most critically, the new rules leave family or community members wishing to communicate through books – to send a loved one a book about grief after the passing of a family member, to send a self-help book to repair a relationship, or to share the experience of reading a novel together, or any other number of ways in which people communicate and associate through books – without any alternative at all,” the letter states.

The books rendered generally unavailable to prisoners include “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and the works of acclaimed black authors Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. Dubois, Alex Haley and Maya Angelou, the ACLU stated in its letter.

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