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Maryland prisons rescind controversial policy that advocates say restricted inmate book access

Maryland prison officials have agreed to rescind a policy introduced in April that inmate advocates said restricted prisoners’ access to books.

In a move to curb smuggling of Suboxone film — a drug commonly used to treat opioid addiction that is sold in thin, easy-to-hide strips — the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in April announced that inmates would only be allowed to receive books from two vendors, Edward Hamilton Books and Books N Things.

The corrections department overturned that decision Monday. Inmates may now accept books from family and online retailers, but only after those books have undergone a rigorous screening process.

Officials targeted book shipments as a source of drug trafficking in Maryland prisons.

“What may appear to be a seemingly harmless novel could be concealing drugs and weapons used to fuel institutional violence and corruption,” wrote Maryland DPSCS Secretary Stephen T. Moyer in a letter to the state’s American Civil Liberties Union.

Maryland DPSCS documented 44 instances in which Suboxone was found in books since 2015, amounting to 660 strips.

But in most cases, inmates just want to read, not smuggle drugs, said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. The state’s ACLU has been at the forefront of the movement against the policy.

The human rights organization penned a seven-page letter to Moyer in May that decried the policy and called it “irrational, arbitrary and an exaggerated response to safety concerns.”

“There are more effective ways to address safety concerns without isolating and dehumanizing the people that are incarcerated,” said Kumar. “What we’ve learned from prisoners and their families is this is part of a broader pattern in the [Department of Corrections] of adopting severe rules that have consequences for inmates and their families in the name of security.”

The ACLU also argued that the authorized vendors’ limited inventory could further isolate inmates from the outside world. The organization found that “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, the Harry Potter series, anything written by Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King Jr., and several other popular works were not offered by either of the approved vendors.

Rather than limiting inmates’ access to books, the department will instead tighten security and bolster the screening process for books inmates receive in the mail, said Gerard Shields, spokesman for Maryland DPSCS.

“It’s the biggest contraband that comes into the facility,” said Shields about Suboxone. “People on it are more likely to assault corrections officers.”

In 2015, the corrections department confiscated about 3,350 forms of Suboxone in Maryland facilities.

Abuse of the drug can also lead to life-threatening illnesses, overdose and death.

Suboxone was at the center of a high-profile racketeering case at Eastern Correctional Institution in 2016, where 80 people — including 18 corrections officers — were charged with smuggling drugs inside the facility. Prosecutors found that one box of Suboxone strips sold for $50 inside the facility.

llumpkin@baltsun.com

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