Pennsylvania Prisons Ban Books Due To "Drug Smuggling," Twitter Erupts

By Keri Blakinger 09/24/18

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections took to Twitter to defend the banning policy and were promptly ripped a new one by Twitter users.

woman angrily using her cellphone

The Pennsylvania prison system got hilariously dragged on Twitter after officials claimed they’d intercepted a letter about drug-smuggling—when in fact the neatly-penned missive mentioned nothing of the sort. 

The tweet and its aftermath are just the latest bizarre fallout from the alleged drug exposure incidents and subsequent book-banning policy that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections defended in the first place. The letter, they said, was proof of the need for stricter book-sending policies to tamp down on drug trafficking into the facility.

“Do you have any old books you read already? If so I want you to send them to me,” reads the inmate letter posted to Twitter on Sept. 14. Over the course of the next few lines, the missive-mailer explains how to game the system to send in used books as if they’re new, thus making it possible to get in a wider array of reading material for a lower cost.

Nowhere in the 14 lines of writing does the letter mention drugs, or include instructions about how to conceal any type of material in the mailed-in books.

“P.S. A dictionary would be lovely,” the prisoner scrawled in the margin with a smiley face.

Nonetheless, prison officials spotted the literary subterfuge and saw something more sinister. In their tweet, the department described the note as “a letter from an inmate to family members describing how to smuggle drugs through a popular book donation program.”

Twitter was not having it. 

“That’s weird,” tweeted the Rhode Island chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “Is ‘dictionary’ code for drugs? Many of my clients have asked for dictionaries over the years, and when I had actual dictionaries mailed to them, they did not ask me why I sent books instead of drugs. Please advise.”

Another Twitter user wrote, “Ah yes, classic drug dealer lingo like ‘A dictionary would be lovely.’”

Others joined in.

“Do you know what a book is?” another user tweeted. More and more smart-alecky commenters piled on, ensuring the prison system’s tweet got soundly ratioed into Twitter infamy. 

"Sir, I was promised a letter describing how to smuggle drugs & all I got was this lousy letter describing how to donate books,” tweeted another Twitter snarker. 

The chain of unfortunate events that led to the Twitter dragging began a number of weeks ago after 57 prison staffers were sickened in a series of 28 alleged drug exposure incidents.

In response, prison officials instituted a statewide lockdown in late August and shut down all mail. Afterward, prison brass linked it all to synthetic cannabinoid exposure—but experts told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it was more likely a “mass psychogenic illness.”

“We see it all the time with law enforcement," said Jeanmarie Perrone, director of medical toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "Police pull someone over and find an unknown substance. Suddenly their heart's racing, they're nauseated and sweaty. They say, 'I'm sick. I'm gonna pass out.' That is your normal physiological response to potential danger."

Another physician called the possibility of cannabinoid exposure through the skin “implausible.” But whatever caused the officers’ sickness, there’s been little doubt that the system—like prison systems in other states—has seen an uptick in K2 smuggling. 

Accordingly, the Keystone State’s prisons announced plans to spend $15 million to up security with body scanners for visitation, digital mail delivery, drone-detecting equipment—and a shift to e-books.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.