Mississippi sued for restricting prisoners’ access to books

Published 10:17 am Monday, April 30, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A southern Mississippi prison and the Mississippi Department of Corrections are being sued for restricting inmates’ access to free books.

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday by the Mississippi Center for Justice and law firm DLA Piper argues that a policy change at South Mississippi Correctional Facility violates the First Amendment by only allowing inmates to receive religious books for free.

Big House Books, which is a nonprofit, mails books and educational materials – like fiction and nonfiction books, puzzle books, GED manuals and religious texts – directly to Mississippi inmates, usually for no cost. But beginning last May, the prison in Leakesville began mailing the books back. The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman began doing the same.

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When questioned, both facilities said only religious books could be mailed for free to inmates. They said all other books could be donated to the prison library or purchased by inmates.

It is unclear what prompted the change.

Many of Big House Books’ materials are donated, so they are able to send books at no cost to inmates. Inmates can write to Big House Books to request specific books or types of books.

While Big House Books continues its work with other prisons in the state, they have been unable to mail nonreligious books to South Mississippi and Parchman inmates since the new policies took effect.

Mississippi Center for Justice Advocacy Director Beth Orlansky told The Associated Press that the center is suing just South Mississippi, not Parchman. She said she hopes the litigation will encourage change in both facilities, though.
In the center’s Thursday news release, Orlansky said while religious books are important inside prisons, so are secular books.

“With this lawsuit, we seek simply to restore the prior practice at the prison so that prisoners can receive books in the mail whether paid or free, whether religious or secular,” Orlansky said.

South Mississippi inmates Charles Owens and Jess Green joined Big House Books in the suit, claiming they have been blocked from receiving free books because of the prison’s new policy. The Mississippi Department of Corrections, Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall, South Mississippi Correctional Facility and South Mississippi Superintendent Jacquelyn Banks are all defendants.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the department does not comment on active litigation.