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May 31, 2018

ACLU Calls on Prison System to Reverse Rule Severely Limiting Access to Books in Violation of First Amendment 

Sweeping New Department of Corrections Rules Largely Eliminate Access to Books; Forbids Families from Having Books Sent to Loved Ones

BALTIMORE - Citing the First Amendment rights of prisoners and their families, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland and the ACLU's National Prison Project (NPP) is calling on the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Recruitment (DOC) to immediately rescind Institutional Bulletin # 2018-02, which categorically forbids gift books even when sent directly from a seller like Amazon to those detained in Maryland prisons; forces prisoners to purchase books from one of two private vendors with extremely limited book offerings; and prohibits any person in custody from possessing more than 10 books. The ACLU's letter to the DOC details how the senseless and harsh new restrictions on books are utterly inconsistent with the First Amendment and reflect poor policy that makes Maryland an outlier. 

"Prisoners read a lot.  It is a form of connection for families - they read and share books together," said Martina Hazelton.  "For years, I've bought my husband therapeutic and self-help materials online, like books on meditation, because he suffers from anxiety and he doesn't have access to mental health services. This new restriction completely blocks me from giving him that kind of support.  People should realize what a huge impact this has.  Families are the ones who fill the gap in what the Department of Corrections is not providing in programming and education."

The DOC's draconian new restrictions, in combination with the numerous other pre-existing restrictions that limit access to books, effectively deny more than 20,000 Maryland prisoners any access to the vast majority of books ever written, and prevent those who wish to communicate with them through books from doing so.  

The ACLU contends that these rules clearly violate the U.S. and Maryland Constitutions, are arbitrary and irrational, and reflect stunningly poor policy choices. Indeed, the federal Bureau of Prisons rescinded a similar (but arguably less restrictive) policy only a few weeks ago.

"It is astonishing that the DOC so casually disregards the fundamental First Amendment rights of the thousands of people in its custody and the thousands more who wish to communicate with them," said Sonia Kumar, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.  "It is also deeply disturbing that the DOC doesn'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."  

First Amendment protections include the right to read, send, and receive books.  Restrictions like the DOC's latest book ban implicate both the First Amendment rights of those who are incarcerated as well as the families, friends and organizations who wish to communicate with them. In addition, courts have repeatedly reaffirmed the common-sense idea that it is rehabilitative to permit those who are incarcerated to get books and otherwise connect with family, friends, and support networks outside prison.  

In the words of Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was once in the custody of the Maryland DOC, and who has since become a critically-acclaimed poet and graduate of Yale Law School:

"When I got locked up, I think, books became magic. Books weren't really
magic when I was a child, they were just something that I [enjoyed]
reading. I thought it was important, but when I got locked up it became
magic, it became a means to an end. ... It became the way in which I
experienced the world, but more importantly, I think, it became the way in
which I learned about what it means to be human, and to be flawed and to
want things that you can't have."

Here is a sampling of books that are unavailable through either of the two permitted vendors:

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
"Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger
"Native Son" by Richard Wright
"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison
"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. DuBois
Anything written by Langston Hughes
Any Harry Potter books
"Brave New World," Aldous Huxley
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway
"Civil Disobedience and Other Essays" by Henry David Thoreau
Any book written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Alex Haley
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates