Respect Equality

Families, friends barred from sending books to inmates in Iowa state prisons: report

Story at a glance

  • Incarcerated Americans retain their constitutional right to freedom of speech, which includes access to reading materials.
  • A new policy is restricting that access in Iowa state prisons in an attempt to fight contraband.
  • Critics say the policy will be cost prohibitive for some inmates and restrict their access to a wide variety of reading material.

A new Iowa state prison policy restricting inmates’ ability to access books has sparked an outcry from First Amendment defenders as well as friends, family and advocates, reports Iowa State Radio

While inmates retain the right to read books and magazines, the new policy requires the inmate to place the order themselves through an approved vendor, meaning that the transaction will be subject to a number of fees and taxes — as are any transfers made to inmates’ accounts for this purpose. 


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Approved vendors include AzureGreen, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Christian Booksellers and limited access to Amazon, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections told IPR, but vary from prison to prison. 

“On occasions the contraband has been discovered during investigations or searches, but more often it has been discovered once an inmate experiences a serious health event caused by an illegal narcotic,” DOC spokesperson Cord Overton told IPR. “Since visiting has been suspended for over a year, the most common form of contraband introduction is by abusing the mail and publication submission system.”


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Similar policies have been enacted in other states to fight contraband, including Mississippi, where opponents dropped a lawsuit after the state rewrote its policy allowing inmates only to receive religious books and secular books from nonprofit groups. 

“The U.S. Supreme Court has pretty clearly established that people who are detained have a First Amendment right to read a wide range of books and literature,” Veronica Fowler, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, told IPR. “When you deprive people in jail of opportunities to read or limit their ability to do so, that’s not only fundamentally at odds with the notion of the First Amendment but also with the ideal of rehabilitating.”


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