Book policy at Pa. prisons to stop drug smuggling sparks protest

The state recently prohibited book donations following a rash of substance exposures at multiple prisons

By Samantha Melamed
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — In the past few weeks, protesters have assailed the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' strict new policies on inmate mail and books, including a $4 million contract with a Florida company to scan and forward incoming mail, and the prohibition of direct donations from organizations like Books Through Bars.

Now, legal advocates are urging the prison system to rethink its plans for handling legal mail — in which staff would photocopy mail in the inmate's presence, then retain the original in a sealed envelope for up to a month before destroying it. In a letter to the department dated Sept. 18, attorneys from the Pennsylvania ACLU, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and the Abolitionist Law Center said the policy was "indefensible," the most intrusive in the country, and a violation of attorney-client confidentiality.

It promised a federal court challenge if the department does not revisit the policy.

According to the department, the measures are necessary to stem the influx of drugs into prisons — particularly after a number of corrections officers took ill in recent months. The department said the guards were sickened by exposure to K2. Experts in toxicology told the Inquirer and Daily News that a more likely cause is mass psychogenic illness.

As evidence of the drug problem, the department recently posted on its Facebook and Twitter accounts photos of a Bible with strips of suboxone hidden inside, shipped from a Philadelphia Barnes & Noble store. It also posted a letter it said represented an inmate "describing how to smuggle drugs" — but Twitter users were having none of it.

This week, the department got ratioed after a Twitter user pointed out a curious thing about the letter: It doesn't actually mention drugs.

Another user chimed in: "Sir, I was promised a letter describing how to smuggle drugs & all I got was this lousy letter describing how to donate books."

The letter, which apparently accompanied a form from a book-donation organization, includes this plan: The writer's family and friends could manipulate the form in order to send him books directly, in violation of prison rules.

Still, Twitter user La Tasha C. Williams replied that prisoners do use "code words to communicate illicit activity. You don't think the word 'drugs' would actually appear in the letter?? The letter is definitely suspect."

But many were not convinced. Not even by the writer's postscript: "A dictionary would be lovely!"

Sometimes, they argued, a dictionary is just a dictionary.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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