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In a reversal, Md. prison officials lift limits on access to books for inmates

ROCKVILLE, MD -  An initial holding cell
ROCKVILLE, MD - An initial holding cell (Dan Morse/TWP)

Maryland prison officials have reversed a statewide policy that limited access to books for thousands of inmates as part of an effort to reduce drug smuggling.

Prisoners can immediately begin receiving book shipments directly from relatives and online retailers, according to Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stephen T. Moyer. The corrections department on Monday also lifted its constraints on how often inmates can order through prison-approved vendors.

“The department strongly believes it can continue prioritizing the safety and security of its correctional facilities while fostering the rehabilitative component of corrections through literature,” Moyer said in a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Read the letter here

Prison officials put new book-ordering restrictions in place in April, The Washington Post reported, as a response to the high volume of drugs being trafficked into state facilities, including in the pages of books.

Prisoner advocates call on Maryland officials to rescind “virtual book ban” for inmates

The decision to rescind the policy came after criticism from lawmakers, inmates and their families. The ACLU characterized the restrictions as an unconstitutional, “virtual book ban” in a letter last month to corrections department leaders. Officials had until Monday to respond to the group’s concerns.

“We are extremely glad they have rescinded what was clearly a misguided policy and are affirming their commitment to making sure people have access to books,” said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.

“We want to make sure the department takes the broader message to heart that it can be more nuanced in developing policy to address contraband.”

Federal prisons abruptly cancel policy that made it harder, costlier for inmates to get books

State officials initially defended the policy that restricted inmates to 10 book purchases every three months from two vendors that distributed paper catalogues. Inmate advocates who contacted The Post expressed concern about the limited selection of titles and the cost.

Federal prison officials scrapped similar book-ordering restrictions in May after inquiries from The Post. Those limits were in place at federal facilities in Virginia and California and set to start in Florida. The federal procedures limited book orders to three vendors and included a 30 percent markup.

In responding to the ACLU on Monday, Maryland officials provided new details about the ways in which books have been used to smuggle drugs into state facilities. Prison investigators have struggled to stop the flow of thin, clear strips of Suboxone, an FDA-approved medication that helps opiate addicts manage withdrawal symptoms.

Since 2015, investigators have uncovered 660 strips in books in 44 individual cases and discovered book vendors working with inmates to smuggle drugs, according to the letter.

“What may appear to be a seemingly harmless novel could be concealing drugs and weapons used to fuel institutional violence and corruption,” Moyer wrote.

“This is an ongoing threat that we must not and cannot ignore,” he said in the letter. “If abused, Suboxone can cause life-threatening respiratory illness, overdose and death.”

Moyer said officials will step up screening of books in prisons and emphasized the efforts of the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to balance “victim advocacy with the reformation of incarcerated offenders.”

Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), a former prosecutor who has worked on criminal justice reform measures, said the administration’s initial approach could not “withstand scrutiny.” He urged state officials to work with the prison community and lawmakers to craft “flexible guidelines” for future problems.

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