Missouri prison system bans St. Louis Magazine issue with story on death penalty

St. Louis Magazine

An article about secrecy and the death penalty in Missouri got the May edition of St. Louis Magazine banned from the Missouri Department of Corrections.

"It's a bit rich that the department responded to a story alleging a pattern of secrecy by suppressing that story, too," William Powell told Poynter in an e-mail.

Powell, senior editor at St. Louis Magazine, wrote about the ban Wednesday on the magazine's website.

“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.

That article "How We Kill: The State of the Death Penalty,"follows one prisoner through his execution.

At the mouth of the driveway, a bundled officer asks the purpose of your visit. You’re here to watch Herbert Smulls die. State law requires that every execution be witnessed by no fewer than eight “reputable citizens.” It’s a single vestige of transparency in an increasingly secret process. When its executioner was deemed incompetent, the state of Missouri hired somebody else, then passed a law prohibiting the press from publicly identifying him or her. When the manufacturer of its lethal injection drugs said they weren’t intended to kill, the state got another drug from another source, then granted the pharmacy anonymity, too.

The pattern is consistent: When a problem arises, fix it, then shroud the process, to prevent future complaints. It’s proved an effective approach. Hampered by various issues, Missouri carried out two executions from 2006 to 2012. Now, though questions persist, Smulls will be the third to die in as many months.

On Thursday, Poynter reported that several news organizations, including the Associated Press, The Guardian and The Kansas City Star were suing the Missouri Department of Corrections over secrecy around the drugs used for lethal injections. A separate suit was filed by a reporter with St. Louis Public Radio and other organizations.

After being banned from Missouri prisons, St. Louis Magazine sent a letter appealing the ruling, Powell wrote.

“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.”

Editor's note: Kristen Hare freelanced for St. Louis Magazine several years ago.


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