The death penalty has been a controversial topic lately, especially in the wake of a horrific botched execution in Ohio. It’s no surprise that news organizations across the country are talking about capital punishment and exploring whether it’s really a good fit for the United States. In Missouri’s prison system, however, prisoners won’t have access to those discussions, because prison officials are censoring an issue of St. Louis Magazine over a story on the death penalty.
Access to reading material in prisons is highly unreliable. Prisoners are only allowed to receive books, magazines, newspapers and other print materials from preapproved sources (including a vetted library), and all their incoming packages are checked to see if contraband material is included. When it comes to reading material, contraband can include a variety of subjects, depending on the policy of the prison, but often involves sexual or seditious material, coverage of the death penalty, discussions of prison conditions and prisoners’ rights activism, and more. Prison censorship, and challenges to same, is a common problem in U.S. prisons that advocates report is getting worse.
Some of this may be due to shifting social attitudes in the United States, which has become a much more active surveillance culture in the last decade, and has also cracked down on mandatory sentencing laws and additional regulations for prisons and penal environments. It may also be the result of the increasing corporate management of prisons, with much of the industry being privatized and run on a for-profit basis. Prisons using standardized censorship procedures may hope to shelter themselves from lawsuits and challenges, but this tactic can also backfire.
The St. Louis Magazine feature covered an execution and discussed how Missouri has returned to the execution business. It’s a stark, moving piece, serving as an indictment of the death penalty and the larger prison system itself. William Powell, the article’s author, wrote a letter to prison officials after learning of the ban: “St. Louis Magazine has a great deal of respect for the work done by corrections personnel, and we understand the paramount importance of maintaining safety within the offender population. However, we do not agree that the May 2014 issue would ‘instill violence or hatred.’ Further, the article regarding Missouri’s death penalty contains information pertinent to offenders, especially those on death row. We believe they should have the right to read it.”
He argues that the article, tracing the last day of a condemned man, was an example of transparency about the death penalty in a state where much of the process is shrouded in secrecy. Missouri has used a variety of tactics to anonymize execution teams, sources of drugs used in executions and other facets of the execution process, which raises important questions about prisoner rights. In Ohio, where the process was similarly secretive, a prisoner suffered an extremely agonizing death after being denied access to information about the drugs that would be used in his execution, illustrating the value of transparency.
Notably, multiple media sources are suing the state over its lack of transparency in the execution process, pushing the state to open up records for the benefit of the public as well as inmates. 2014 may turn out to be a year in which the push for transparency in capital punishment reaches a tipping point, forcing states to rethink their administration of the death penalty.
Photo credit: Kate Ter Haar.