The “most punitive and restrictive book policy in the country” begins in Missouri Sept. 25. Who is fighting back?
On Aug. 25, MODOC announced that friends and family are no longer permitted to send approved books or publications to incarcerated people due to recent policy change.
Beginning on Sept. 25, family and friends will be unable to purchase books or publications to be sent to incarcerated people in Missouri’s prison system. Beforehand, books were not authorized to be personally sent to incarcerated people, causing friends and family to purchase books to be sent through an authorized vendor. Now, they are jumping through even more loops.
Under the circumstances that someone would want to send an incarcerated person a book, they would have to send the amount of money via Securus Technologies, a visual communication system for incarcerated people, which imposes financially taxing fees. The rationale behind the change is due to drugs and contraband trafficking, according to a press release from Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty (MADP).
This is coming about a year after a policy passed in July of last year banned all mail except for legal documents and approved books and publications from entering the DOC. Any letters sent to incarcerated individuals must go through a company in Tampa, Florida that transcribes their personalized messages onto digital platforms. The issues with this involve a decelerated process of receiving letters taking up to two weeks, illegible scans, and certain forms of documents, such as birthday cards, being denied scanning.
Their reasoning behind this change was also due to drugs and contraband trafficking. Concurrently, since the policy, there has been an increase in drug overdoses and fatal overdoses within Missouri prisons, according to the press release.
According to the press release, MODOC communications director, Karen Pojmann, stated that there is no data from the department regarding drug trafficking through books, alluding to the lack of justification for installing the new policy.
Not only do these unnecessary fees place a burden on incarcerated people and their families, it also strips them of potential educational opportunities during their time in prison. “Expecting folks on the inside to pay for their own books is just kind of ridiculous and that’s why we say that this sort of amounts to a de facto book ban across the board,” Dylan Pyles, Co-Founder of Liberation Lit.
On top of this, restricting limitations to DOC approved vendors, the quality and amount of publications available to incarcerated individuals is completely in the hands of the DOC.
For certain incarcerated individuals, specifically those serving life sentences, this new change is extremely detrimental to their long-term health. “It provides a sense of meaning in a world that has basically been structured to strip meaning from your life,” Pyles says.
According to the press release, the DOC did not tell any Missouri incarcerated people about their new book policy, rather letting them find out about the change through friends, family, and word of mouth.
“The initial reaction was a lot of frustration that they were not given any update on the policy change within the prisons themselves,” Pyles says.
Future for Visitations
In late 2022, the DOC initiated the installation of new video visit kiosks, costing $7.95 for a 30 minute call. This allows the DOC a new form of profiting off of incarcerated individuals, while also controlling the power to end visits at their convenience.
Policies regarding the video visits can be very trying for those trying to reach incarcerated people, due to the fact that only one approved person can be viewed on screen, and the in-person visiting list limited to 20 people. This results in isolation and detachment from loved ones.
There is concern that this continuation of restrictive policy changes will ultimately lead to the ban of in-person visits for incarcerated individuals. This can also be attributed to the lack of staffing that Missouri prisons currently have. “I think that the word is that it’s kind of a perfect storm of things that will lead to the elimination of in-person visits,” Pyles says.
In July of this year, Missouri Prison Reform requested MODOC to provide all policies regarding the recent ban on book access through a Sunshine request. The MacArthur Justice Center also requested that the DOC provide a list of their approved publication vendors. As of now, the DOC has yet to respond to these requests.
Initial steps that MADP and Liberation Lit is taking in response to the ban is calling the director of MODOC, Anne Precythe, to express opinions and feelings of concern, urging her to overturn the recent policy change. There has been no statement from Precythe or the department regarding the change.
Family members impacted by the ban should reach out to Liberation Lit and similar organizations to voice their frustrations and concerns on the situation. “Really for us, it’s just about making sure that people who are most impacted by this issue are supported,” Pyles says.
Pyles and other organizations against the new policy change are hopeful that Precythe and MODOC will overturn the ban. “This is the most punitive and restrictive book policy in the country,” Pyles says.
MADP is also demanding more transparent actions to be taken by the DOC, purchasing of proper equipment to locate drugs, as well as better treatment for Missouri’s incarcerated individuals.