29 September, 2023

Synthetic Drugs and Books – What's the Connection?

The year was 2009 when the Missouri Department of Corrections finally reversed its longstanding position and allowed prisoners to receive books ordered by people on the outside. I wrote a blog post expressing my joy at the change and, in the years that followed, more than once called it one of the best things that the state ever did to improve the conditions of confinement for those in custody. Can I take back that praise

The DOC announced in its August "Friends and Family" newsletter that, effective 25 September (i.e., this past Monday), prisoners would no longer be allowed to receive books ordered by people on the outside. Books now need to be purchased by the prisoners directly, using a certified check from their institutional accounts. Any books sent to us by caring, considerate people out there must be mailed off, thrown out, or sent away with a visitor.

Since the world's largest retailer, Amazon, hasn't accepted checks since 2004, this limits prisoners' options. Having to order from smaller venders with limited stock and higher prices, although good for local economies, is a notable hardship for those of us who count our every dollar. It also means that people will feel less inclined to send prisoners gifts. The DOC itself tells people not to send prisoners money unless they feel confident about how it will be spent. Removing people's option to order a book likewise removes the personal touch, in the same way that some say gift cards do.

And here's a funny thing: no one saw fit to tell us prisoners about what's being called a "transitional operation procedure" until two days after it went into effect. I only heard about it from my mother, who subscribes to the Department's newsletter. In the days that followed the announcement, news sources, such as Kansas City's NPR station and the Kansas City Star, started reporting on it.

Just today I learned that used books are prohibited as well, reversing twelve years of departmental precedent. Thanks a bunch, fentanyl.

That's right. A supposed uptick in drug overdoses is being blamed on books by the Department. I'm not making this up. A DOC representative claims that parties unknown are lacing the pages of books, magazines, and newspapers with synthetic drugs that they mail to the facilities, leading to increased overdoses in prisons across Missouri. (There's also some question about whether the numbers are actually increasing, or just being more frequently reported. I'll leave that for journalists to determine.) How method of payment for the books might change this is unclear.

The only meaningful outcome of this "transitional operation procedure" is a limitation on the volume and frequency of prisoners' access to reading material of their choosing. We're limited to the number orders we can place each year and limited in the number of books we can have in our possession at one time. Before this ban, people could order a book for someone in prison once a year or once a week and never have it count against that prisoner's order limit, because an order is defined as something purchased with money from the prisoner's account. It was win-win: case managers didn't have to trouble themselves with processing orders, and, assuming the books didn't violate censorship guidelines, prisoners got whatever books they wanted.

This decree by the Departmental powers that be should be troubling on a number of levels. It's not about prisoners getting to read a limitless string of bestsellers. It's about the ability to choose how and what one learns while imprisoned. Books offer an effective means for achieving the fundamental change in thinking that most prisoners so desperately need. This ban severely limits the potential for that change. Exactly what kind of people is the Missouri DOC trying to create here?

The Department representative quoted in that KCUR article mentioned above said that facility libraries make plenty of books available. I call bullshit. There's a reason that, until last month, I hadn't visited the library at ERDCC in three years – and it wasn't COVID. I would argue that most of what are considered essential texts in education are missing from prison library shelves. For example, ERDCC's library has no titles by Noam Chomsky, Marshall McLuhan, Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, or Howard Zinn. I don't think there's a single nonfiction feminist text in the whole room. Nothing in queer studies, either. We do have a W.E.B. DuBois collection and a Ta-Nahisi Coates title, but not much else that might fuel a burn-off of someone's racist ideas.

In literature, the situation is even bleaker. There's some Nathaniel Hawthorne and dusty old Homer, but no Wallace Stevens, Ralph Ellison, Sylvia Plath, or Philip Roth. And forget about finding any daring, experimental, or milestone literary fiction more recent than about 1990. For a truly avid reader, the window offered on the world has become very small indeed.

There is a reason that Freedom Libraries are being installed in prisons all over the country and that numerous independent bookstores run programs that send free books to prisoners. They know both the power of books and the need for them. If only we could show the Missouri DOC.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.