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Missouri DOC Permits Gift Books in Response to PLN Demand Letter

On September 15, 2009, the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to revise its policy prohibiting prisoners from receiving books purchased for them by third parties or sent to them free of charge. The DOC also agreed to eliminate any prior approval requirement as applied to book vendors and distributors. The decision was made in response to a demand letter sent the DOC’s attorney by general counsel for Prison Legal News (PLN) Daniel Manville.

At some point, Missouri DOC facilities began enforcing a policy prohibiting prisoners from receiving books unless the books were paid for with funds from the prisoner’s trust account. This policy was enacted despite the fact that DOC permits prisoners to receive magazine and newspaper subscriptions purchased for them by a third party or sent to them free of charge. Some facilties also required prior approval for books from vendors to be distributed to Missouri prisoners.

Earlier in 2009 Missouri prisoners informed PLN that books ordered from PLN on their behalf by third parties were being censored. Various DOC facilities refused to deliver the books and failed to provide notice of the censorship to either the prisoner or PLN. PLN Editor Paul Wright sent a letter to the DOC director requesting that the policy and corresponding lack of notice be revised, but the letter went largely ignored.

On August 17, 2009, attorney Daniel Manville, general counsel for PLN’s parent company the Human Rights Defense Center, sent the director a final demand letter as a prelude to initiating legal action. Mr. Manville asserted that refusing prisoners access to gift or free books, and failing to provide notice of the censorship of those books, violated PLN’s constitutional rights. Mr. Manville requested that DOC change these policies or face litigation. In a letter authored by its legal counsel, Matthew Briesacher, DOC capitulated and agreed to change its policies to permit Missouri prisoners to receive books regardless of whether they paid for them or not and to eliminate any prior approval requirement for book vendors and distributors.

PLN is pleased the Missouri DOC was willing to resolve this issue without unnecessary and costly litigation in a manner that respects the constitutional rights of the prisoners in its custody and of publishers like PLN who wish to communicate with them. We would like to thank the Missouri prisoners who alerted us to this issue and sent us documentation of the problem.

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