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Inmate advocates press Maryland to scrap book restrictions

BALTIMORE (AP) — Advocates for Maryland’s prisoners are pressing the mid-Atlantic state to scrap “senseless and harsh” regulations they say restrict the ability of inmates to access books and violates their constitutional rights.

As part of a new effort to block inmate access to Suboxone, a drug sold in thin strips that are easily concealed inside envelopes, prisoners in Maryland can now only order books from two vendors that the American Civil Liberties Union says offers only “extremely limited” selections.

In a letter sent to Maryland’s secretary of correctional services, the ACLU’s Maryland chapter says the state’s “draconian new restrictions” makes Maryland an outlier when it comes to book access in prisons. They say a recently published bulletin also bans any third-party orders and prohibits inmates from possessing more than 10 titles.

Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said it’s “deeply disturbing” that the state’s correctional officials don’t “recognize that in nearly every instance, a person attempting to send or receive a book is doing so for a good reason, not a bad one.”

But Gerard Shields, spokesman for Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the recent decision to restrict book orders to just two vendors had to be imposed to ensure the safety of correctional employees and inmates.

“At this time, there is no intent to change the department’s decision, which ensures inmates have access to books in a safe manner,” Shields said in an emailed statement.

Maryland’s correctional system has some 129,000 books in its libraries and Shields says the state spends about $16,000 each year for new books. The two vendors designated to handle book orders from inmates provide over 15,000 titles, he said.

But according to the ACLU, the vendors are offering shabby services to the state’s roughly 20,000 inmates. Books that are unavailable through either of the two permitted vendors include classics like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Richard Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” They offer nothing at all penned by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes or American civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s hardly the first controversial regulation announced by Maryland’s prison officials.

The new decision focused on books comes less than two years after state correctional authorities announced eye-raising plans to impose the nation’s first total ban on letters to inmates at state facilities, requiring that any unofficial mail to inmates only be sent via postcards. Maryland’s prison authorities scrapped plans to publish that controversial regulation hours after The Associated Press reported on the proposed change.

Then as now, they said their aim was largely to stop Suboxone from coming into lockups. At the time they floated the letters policy, the state said it intercepted more than 3,000 hits of Suboxone behind bars in 2015, roughly 44 percent of which were found in incoming letters.

In a Friday phone interview, Reginald Dwayne Betts, a convicted felon who became an award winning author and is working on a doctorate in law at Yale University, described the new rules in his home state’s lockups as the height of absurdity.

“They’re using a nuclear weapon instead of a scalpel to deal with their security issue,” Betts said of Maryland’s newly imposed restrictions on books.

Betts, who had three felony convictions for a carjacking he committed at a Virginia mall when he was 16, said being able to supplement his passion for reading while incarcerated helped him “begin to understand who I was and who I wanted to be.”

“And I was only able to do that, really, because I was able to reach out beyond what was just in the prison library,” said Betts, who grew up in Suitland, Maryland.

Books helped Betts utterly transform his life. After serving eight years in prison in Virginia, he went on to graduate from the University of Maryland, win a Harvard University fellowship and earn a Yale law degree. He’s now a celebrated poet and memoir writer, has earned a 2010 NAACP Image Award, and is married with two children.

“Books are a way to connect people to society and it’s also a way to grow in your soul and in your spirit,” he said during a break from one of his children’s school activities. “It’s a way to become educated.”

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