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Missouri prisons ban friends and family from sending books to prisoners

An illustration of a person in an orange jumpsuits reading while theres vignettes of them in school, with a family, next to a lawyer and a police officer.
Sally Deng
Special to NPR
Missouri advocates say books are an important link to the outside world for people in prison.

People incarcerated in Missouri prisons will no longer be able to receive books and other publications from friends and family starting Sept. 25. The Missouri Department of Corrections said the new policy is an attempt to reduce the influx of drugs and other contraband into prisons.

The announcement, published in an email newsletter on Friday, said incarcerated people must now buy their own books, magazines, newspapers and correspondence courses.

“Reading materials must meet censorship guidelines and must not exceed $100 in value, threaten safety and security of the institution, or exceed property limits,” the newsletter said.

Advocates for Missouri prisoners said the policy will severely limit access to the outside world because most people in prison cannot afford to buy their own books.

Lori Curry, executive director of the nonprofit Missouri Prison Reform, said mailing books is one of the only ways that friends and family can express care for a loved one in prison.

“It's an escape from the things going on inside the prison,” she said. “That was the only thing we could do for them, for holidays and birthdays.”

Curry said she sends books to her partner in prison, who is looking to further his education through reading.

“It’s really important to him,” she said. “It’s just another thing they’ve taken away.”

Advocates raise alarm as Missouri prisons restrict access to books
Michelle Smith of the Missouri Justice Coalition joins "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss what the ne book policy means for people in prison, and how access to books is just the latest battleground in Missouri prisons.

The current policy requires books to be purchased from an approved vendor like Amazon and have them shipped directly to a prison. Packages containing books that are not directly from a vendor are not permitted.

Last July, the Missouri Department of Corrections banned most paper mail in prisons. One exception is legal mail from a person’s attorney. Now, most paper mail is electronically scanned and shared with prisoners through photocopies or on tablets.

Karen Pojmann, a spokesperson for the corrections department, said the policy requiring incarcerated people to purchase their own books would help cut down on drugs and other contraband coming through the mail, without having to limit in-person visits or volunteer access to prisons. All mail and packages are screened before they enter facilities.

“We’re just trying to tighten up the process,” she said.

Pojmann said that sometimes contraband mail is disguised to look like legitimate legal mail or packages from an approved vendor. These packages can contain fentanyl or other drugs soaked into the paper.

Pojmann said she did not have data on how often such drugs are found in the mail. She did not have data on how often overdoses occur, but said that drugs are becoming more prevalent in Missouri prisons.

She said people trying to contact loved ones in prison have more options than ever, like video calls and text messages. She argued the new policy does not limit access to books because incarcerated people will still be able to access books through prison libraries or buy the books themselves.

“If you wanted to purchase a book and have it sent to them, you could also send that same person that money,” Pojmann said. “The person who’s paying for the book can still pay for the book.”

Dylan Pyles, co-founder of Kansas City-based group Liberation Lit, said the Department of Corrections’ new policy significantly reduces the group’s ability to mail free books to people in Kansas and Missouri prisons. The group takes book requests from incarcerated people and pays for them through community donations. Pyles said most requests are from people who can’t afford to buy their own books.

“Most people who are incarcerated are making slave wages,” Pyles said. “So even if they are working, they don't have extra money to be spending on books.”

Pojmann said the base salary for incarcerated people working in a prison is $7.50 or $8.50 per month, but could be as high as $80 per month. People in work release programs outside of prison make closer to minimum wage and those working in the Missouri Vocational Enterprises job training program make $0.81 per hour.

Pyles said banning people outside prison from buying and mailing books doesn’t address other sources of prison contraband, such as employees. Research shows that visitors and increasingly, drones, are also possible sources of contraband.

Pyles said Liberation Lit plans to join other advocacy groups to fight the new policy.

“Books are one of the main ways that folks who are serving time or incarcerated are able to create a lifeline with the outside world,” he said. “To limit that access in any way, to me, is truly cruel and unusual punishment.”

Nomin Ujiyediin is the afternoon newscaster at KCUR in Kansas City.