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It’s common knowledge that incarcerated people aren’t allowed cellphones, weapons, and drugs behind prison walls. Such items are considered contraband and any person found with such items can face punishment that may include added time on their sentences.
But tabletop games? Books? Crayon and marker drawings? The world of prison contraband is more complicated than most would think, and the control of prisons goes far beyond checking an inmate’s pockets for shanks.
Here are five common, seemingly harmless items that incarcerated people aren’t allowed access to.
What most prisoners have is an abundance of free time, so reading during that time should be good, right?
When it comes to what books they read, there are strict rules in place. Censorship is still a huge issue in many U.S. prisons, and there are thousands of books that have been banned from prison libraries. There are more than 10,000 titles that have been banned from Texas prisons specifically and, while the list includes puzzling choices like “Where’s Waldo?” and “The Color Purple,” Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is still permitted, according to The Texas Tribune.
Meanwhile, inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Maryland, can forget about keeping up with George R. R. Martin’s much-loved fantasy series, “Game of Thrones.” Kimberly Hricko, who is incarcerated there, revealed in an essay for Vice and The Marshall Project that she’d had one of Martin’s book withheld from her because it contained maps — yet another seemingly innocuous item her prison considered contraband.
2. Dungeons & Dragons
It can’t be easy being a nerd behind bars. Not being allowed to read “Game of Thrones” is one thing but, in 2004, a Wisconsin prison delivered yet another blow to incarcerated fantasy fans by banning Dungeons & Dragons.
After prison officials confiscated his D&D books and other gaming materials in 2004, Kevin T. Singer, an inmate at Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin, filed a lawsuit against the facility, claiming that they violated his first amendment rights to free speech, as well as due process, by denying him access to the game, according to the New York Daily News. The prison reportedly claimed that D&D promoted “fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling.”
Singer lost his legal battle with the prison in 2010 after an appeals court ruled that the policy was reasonable, The Mercury News reports. But while Singer may have lost his right to roleplay, inmates across the country are still coming up with creative ways to continue playing the game.
3. Letters Containing Lipstick Stains
Sealing a letter with a kiss may sound like a harmless, romantic way for a loved one to show their affection for someone incarcerated, but the practice is enough to have their love letter marked "return to sender."
The adult detention center in Fairfax County, Virginia actually banned inmates from receiving letters stained with lipstick, according to The Marshall Project. The seemingly innocuous lipstick print can potentially be laced with LSD or traces of other narcotics, and has been used in the past to disguise drugs, Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Andrea Ceisler told TMP. A kiss mark on any piece of mail will result in staff having it returned to sender. The Michigan prison system instituted similar rules in 2017, the Detroit Free Press reports.
4. Crayon and Marker Drawings
Anyone looking to mail a letter to an inmate at the Utah State Prison should be sure to leave out any stickers, as well as any drawings made with crayons or markers.
The Utah Department of Corrections decided in 2013 that inmates at the Utah State Prison in Draper or the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison would no longer be allowed to receive pictures made with crayons and markers or envelopes with decorative stickers on them, The Salt Lake City Tribune reports. Like with lipstick stains, crayons, markers, and stickers can reportedly be used to conceal drugs that have been ground down into a thin paste.
Soaking paper in liquified drugs like heroin is another issue, one that prisons started observing in 2010, Addiction Now reports. The drug-infused paper can then be chewed or sold to other inmates, according to their report.
5. Hard Candy
Add “eating whatever candy you want” to the list of things most prisoners aren’t allowed to do. While hard candy like Jolly Ranchers may seem a harmless treat, they’re considered contraband in many prisons because they can be used for nefarious purposes, like making drugs or weapons, The Modern Rogue reports. Jolly Ranchers can reportedly be melted down and molded into a disposable shank, or transformed into drugs by mixing up crushed medication with the melted candy and letting it harden again.
Jolly Rancher shanks aren’t exactly the best idea for weapon-making behind bars, however. The tips tend to break easily, according to The New York Daily News.
[Photo by Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via Getty Images]