In the May issue of St. Louis Magazine, I wrote a piece titled “How We Kill,” about the death penalty in Missouri. It told the story of Herbert Smulls, a convicted murderer who was executed on January 28. From his last meal to his last-gasp legal appeals to his last breaths, I documented the final day of his life. The article also explained the troubled history of capital punishment in the state, a saga marked by incompetence and secrecy.
Last week, SLM received a letter from the Missouri Department of Corrections alerting us that the May issue had been banned from correctional facilities across the state. “This issue has been censored due to content which contains information which can be used to instill violence or hatred among the offender population,” the letter stated. It added that we could request an independent review of the decision. The letter was signed by Terry Russell, warden at the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center, where Missouri carries out its executions.
Yesterday, we faxed a letter appealing the ruling. “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,” I wrote. “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.”
I have little hope that our appeal will be successful, but it’s worth a try. All Missouri citizens should know how the death penalty is being administered on their behalf. That applies equally, if not more so, to the condemned inmates subject to that punishment.
In two rulings—Turner v. Safely, in 1987, and Beard v. Banks, in 2006—the United States Supreme Court has given prisons latitude to read and censor inmates’ incoming mail and restrict prisoners’ access to information, provided those limits are related to legitimate state interests. That applies to non-privileged mail, such as letters from relatives or periodicals, but not to privileged mail, like correspondence between an inmate and his or her attorney. In this case, the Department of Corrections argues that its interest is in preventing violence.
Its position is not unreasonable, but the letter furthers the state’s habit of shrouding its execution process in secrecy. As I noted in the article, when a former execution doctor was shown to be inept, the state passed legislation that made its execution team anonymous. When its drug supplier came into question, the state turned to a secret pharmacy.
My article highlighted those problems. Now, the state is covering it up, too.