Opinion: State correction agency wise to back off inmate book ban, welcome help for inmates

Published 7:25 am Thursday, January 3, 2019

Originally published in The Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper:

It was a misguided and probably unconstitutional policy, so it’s wise that the Mississippi Department of Corrections relaxed its ban on sending free books directly to inmates.

It would have been nice, though, if MDOC had widely communicated this change of heart when it occurred apparently months ago.

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But in MDOC’s typically uncommunicative ways, it took a recent court filing to get the word out that it had conceded the right of inmates throughout the state’s prison system to have books sent to them by publishers, distributors and retailers, regardless of who is paying for them.

That policy change was prompted by a lawsuit, filed in April, by Big House Books after the Jackson-based nonprofit was stopped from sending anything but religious books to inmates at two of the state’s prisons — South Mississippi Correctional Facility and the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

MDOC never explained what it had against secular reading material or why only those two prisons were affected by the ban. But even if there was some justification, whatever it was would not have outweighed the good that could come from getting books that inmates desire to read into their hands, whether they can pay for the books or whether they are donated to them, as most of those provided by Big House Books are.

Reading material such as that sent by Big House Books — works of fiction and nonfiction, puzzle books, GED manuals and religious texts — gives the inmates something productive to do with their time. It also builds their literacy skills, which is a big element in rehabilitation, since a large percentage of inmates never finished high school.

It has been widely recognized by elected officials on both sides of the political aisle that America’s gang-infested corrections system does too little correcting and too much reinforcing of the behavior that landed inmates behind bars in the first place. Gov. Phil Bryant recently announced that he is going to push during his last year in office for criminal justice reforms that include improving what’s done inside prison walls, so as to increase the odds that inmates won’t return once they have done their time.

MDOC should welcome not just Big House Books but anyone else who is trying to help achieve that goal.