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To cut prison drug smuggling, Maryland is restricting inmates’ access to books

Maryland prison officials are limiting access to books for thousands of inmates in state-run facilities in the latest effort to reduce drug smuggling.

Inmates may no longer receive books shipped from online retailers or sent by friends and relatives — and instead must purchase reading materials from two prison-approved vendors, in some cases at a higher cost.

The statewide policy, announced last month in a memo obtained by The Washington Post, comes as federal prisons recently experimented with a similar measure only to abruptly rescind it after concerns from advocates for inmates and lawmakers about making it harder and more expensive for inmates to read.

Prison officials in Maryland put the new requirements in place April 25 as a response to the high volume of drugs being trafficked into state facilities, including in the pages of books. In recent years, officials said they have uncovered thousands of hidden strips of Suboxone, an FDA-approved medication that helps people reduce or quit opiates like heroin. The clear, thin strips fuel the underground drug market and violence in prisons, said J. Michael Zeigler, a deputy secretary in the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

“It’s such an easy item to conceal,” Zeigler said.

Investigators uncovered 3,422 Suboxone strips during fiscal 2017 and 3,362 so far this fiscal year. However, officials could not say how many of those were concealed in books.

Directing book orders through two companies vetted by the prison system is intended to cut smuggling opportunities.

Inmates can buy 10 books every three months, according to the memo, and have access to prison libraries. The vendors — Books & Things and Edward R. Hamilton — distribute paper catalogues to prisoners and offer thousands of titles.

But inmates, their families and advocates who contacted The Post worry that the selection is narrow and that listed prices, plus shipping costs, are often higher than the tab for used books from online retailers.

Inmates in Virginia facilities and at the D.C. jail may receive shipments from publishers, book clubs and directly from retailers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon, including books paid for by friends and relatives.

Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, called the state’s new policy an “extreme and irrational response” to the rare occasions when drugs were spirited in through books.

“We should be encouraging people in prison to read as much as possible and not turning books into contraband,” Kumar said.

The ACLU in Maryland is considering legal options, she said, connected to the First Amendment rights of inmates to receive information through books and to participate in the marketplace of ideas.

Caryn York, executive director of the Maryland nonprofit Job Opportunities Task Force, reacted angrily when she learned about the new limits, saying officials had not considered implications for inmates’ education and future employment. The policy, she said, is at odds with what Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has said is its interest in the rehabilitation of prisoners.

“This is just wrong,” said York, who serves on a state advisory board that monitors criminal justice reform efforts.

Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), a former prosecutor who helped craft the justice reform measures, called the new policy a “lazy response to legitimate concerns” and a shift that would exacerbate other problems. Limiting access to books, he said, will “make it harder for inmates to connect with the outside world and less able to transition once they are able to get out.”

Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said in a statement Thursday that “the connection between substance use disorder and incarceration is well established. Keeping drugs out of our prisons is critical to breaking the cycle of addiction and facilitating reentry and rehabilitation.”

In early May, federal prison officials scrapped book-ordering restrictions in place at facilities in Virginia and California and set to start in Florida. The procedures limited book orders to three vendors and included a 30 percent markup. Prison officials pulled the policy after concerns about access and cost, and they said they are reviewing the procedures.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) moved quickly to end a pilot program that limited book orders for state inmates after an outcry from families and prison reform advocates.

But the challenge of thwarting Suboxone smuggling drove the new Maryland policy.

At the state’s largest prison, Eastern Correctional Institution, the Justice Department said that inmates identified in a 2016 investigation were buying Suboxone strips for $3 a piece and selling them for $50.

“There’s nothing more dangerous than an intoxicated prisoner,” Zeigler said. “They don’t follow orders, they assault officers and other inmates — and they’re making money off the drugs.”

Prison officials had already blocked inmates from receiving greeting cards by mail because the thick paper made it easy to conceal Suboxone strips. By limiting book purchases, Zeigler said the state is reducing the number of people who have access to packages. The prison system does not have enough people to thoroughly scan other shipments from more than the two approved vendors, he said, adding that “the sheer volume would just be crazy.”

The companies were selected in part because they offer paper catalogues that can easily be shared within a prison setting. The Connecticut-based company, Edward R. Hamilton, offers more than 4,000 titles across about 80 subject areas in its bargain books catalogue.

Inmates, for instance, can buy David Baldacci’s “The Fallen,” a New York Times bestseller for $21.95. On Amazon, the book costs $18.90, and at Barnes and Noble it is $17.40. The book “12 Years a Slave,” by Solomon Northup, however, is not available, the company said, because it has not maintained the level of sales needed to warrant stocking it. On Amazon, a paperback copy of Northup’s book sells for $2.03, and on Barnes and Noble it is $3.19.

Company owner Richard Hamilton said his is one of the last mail-order bookseller catalogues that accepts checks for payment. The company never participated in a formal selection process to be a state prison supplier, he said in an email. “We just serve the inmates well and follow the rules where they are housed as best we can.”

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