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Missouri Prison Reform received the following message from a resident of a Missouri Prison. Some edits were made for clarity.

Both the old and new Offender Property and Control Procedures policy state the same: “The item shall be ordered and paid for by the offender via a request for withdrawal of offender’s personal funds form and cannot be purchased by family or friends. Exceptions: (1) Reading material in accordance with this procedure.” The old policy states: “Offenders may receive reading material purchased by family or friends from a bona fide vendor as long as the reading material is sent into the institution by that bona fide vendor.” The NEW policy states: “Offenders shall be permitted to receive reading materials at no cost through the mail. Any free reading material shall be sent into the institution by a bona fide vendor.” How does an offender receive reading material free of cost? Someone had to have purchased it from the vendor. I don’t believe Amazon is going to one day decide to send you a book for free just for the hell of it. Much of the new policy appears to consolidate and condense phrases and definitions in attempt to simplify or clarify. However, having served three decades in Missouri prisons, I can tell you policy is either written ambiguously to provide staff wiggle room to deny offenders what they are allowed, or policy is just ignored by staff and they do what they want when it suits them. Sometimes, the staff member selected to draft policy either over thinks what they are trying to express, or they don’t think it through. The result: ambiguous, unclear policy.

Offenders should know that this policy needs more looking into because what one staff member says is allowed/not allowed, and what policy states isn’t always the same. And sometimes the terminology and phrasing of policy can be misleading. In addition, Custody staff and Classification staff often disagree with each other about what policy allows, making it difficult for offenders to adhere to rules when one staff member says “yes” and another says “no.” There has been much litigation in the past involving the MDOC regarding reading material, and it seems odd that DOC’s legal counsel and Attorney General would allow staff to undo offenders’ established civil rights, court judgments, settlements and consent decrees. Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do, especially in lieu of all the new mail restrictions associated with the Securus email app and framing those restrictions around their lame argument that it is being done in good faith to eliminate drug smuggling. What makes this more ridiculous if true, many vendors have stopped accepting mail orders and cashier checks; they are completely online like Amazon. And to make it worse, some books are only available at Amazon, so you would never be able to acquire it. This creates a clever mechanism for DOC to eliminate books altogether. It’s safe to predict there will be a new round of litigation driven by DOC trying to evolve with the digital era while denying offenders the benefit of digital sales and digital banking to preserve their First Amendment rights—-not allowing offenders to evolve by restricting them to mail orders and cashier checks. We’ll see. On a related matter of reading material, this notion of evolving with the digital era gets more complicated for offenders when it comes to taking correspondence courses. There are only a couple of colleges still offering print-based courses through the mail. Most have abandoned print-base for online courses. Offenders don’t have internet access, so access to correspondence courses has diminished severely. Thank God for Adams State University, who is getting expensive but still affordable with the help of family/friends.

Thank you. James (Eric) Mansfield

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