By Christopher Zoukis
A policy change at a Mississippi prison has blocked inmates from getting nearly all books previously sent for free by a non-profit group – except for religious books. Now a federal lawsuit is seeking to reverse that policy.
Since 2015, the non-profit Big House Books, based in Jackson, Mississippi, has sent books and educational materials, generally without charge, to inmates in state correctional facilities who request them. It has regularly filled inmate requests for fiction and non-fiction works, material for GED study, as well as religious texts and recreational titles, like puzzle books.
Since many of the works it sends inmates were donated, the group is generally able to hold its operational costs to a minimum. Then, in the spring of 2017, without notice or explanation for the change, the South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) in Leakesville stopped accepting, and began mailing back, all free books sent there except for religious titles.
SMCF continued allowing prepaid books to be mailed to inmates; the policy change affected only free books. The change originally applied only to SMCI, although later the state penitentiary at Parchman adopted a similar policy.
The new restrictions are in addition to the general limits Mississippi places on books for inmates: All books sent to inmates are searched by MCSI staff to ensure they do not contain contraband, and reviewed for suitable content. The state prison also limits the number of books inmates can order or keep in their cells.
Unable to gain a satisfactory explanation for the change, late in April this year, Big House Books, joined by two SMCI inmates affected by the policy change, filed a federal lawsuit (Big House Books, Owens, and Green v. Hall, et al.), naming as defendants the state Department of Corrections and its commissioner, plus MCSI and its superintendent. The case was prepared by the Mississippi Center for Justice, a non-profit advocacy group, and the DLA Piper law firm.
The lawsuit claims there is no sound reason for restricting delivery of free books to inmates, while allowing books purchased by inmate or others, or for allowing only free books only if they are religious works. Thus, the restrictions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the lawsuit alleges, asking the court to declare the new policy is invalid and to block its enforcement.
Mississippi isn’t the only state to consider imposing new curbs on sources for inmate books. Like the federal government, New York recently announced, then backtracked, on new restrictions on permissible sources for books for inmates; under fire for the announced pilot program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended it just 10 days just 10 days after its start, calling it “flawed.”
Maryland has also put in place new restrictions on sources for books in state correctional facilities, effective April 25. The new policy, which limits book shipments to those from just two vendors and bars books sent by family or friends, was described as a response to contraband smuggling. A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Review said thousands of clear, thin strips of Suboxone, a medication used to treat opiate addiction, had been found hidden in books sent to prisoners in recent years.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.