Zoë Christmas was shocked when the Saskatchewan Penitentiary rejected her package of puzzles and literature.
The contents destined for an inmate in search of literature included sudokus, one short story and a few newsletters — all printed on individual sheets of paper.
Correctional Service of Canada returned the contents with a list of "seemingly harmless" items it won't accept by mail, saying this is in an effort to keep drugs and contraband out of secure prisons.
"I don't think it's right," said Christmas on Thursday. "I don't think sudokus printed off from the Internet are going to be used as a means of trafficking drugs into prison. I don't think sparkles are either."
Christmas is a McGill law student and prisoner advocate who helps run a books-to-prisoners organization called Open Door Books in Montreal. The organization provides Canadian and American prisoners with books and resources.
"I think it's just an excuse or a pretext from the institution to not allow any sort of joy experienced by prisoners," Christmas said.
A spokesperson for Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) said in an emailed statement on Tuesday that CSC is still "looking into" why the printed sheets of paper were returned to Open Door Books instead of given to the inmate after a 72-hour quarantine which is required for mail.
The document of "inappropriate mail content" sent to Christmas listed a series of objects not welcome by mail. There were more obvious items on the list, like bodily fluids and sharp objects, but it also listed items such as stickers, crosswords, arts and crafts items, sparkles, maps and Polaroid photos.
Christmas said the Saskatchewan prisoner first reached out to the organization in March because he said he didn't have access to the literature.
"He said that he's been under 23-hour a day lock down and that the library at Sask. Pen has been closed, so he's alone in a cell for 23 hours a day and has nothing to read."
He asked if she could send some things to help pass the time. Christmas said Open Door Books typically funnels material through prison libraries, but they haven't worked with the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and the inmate indicated the library wasn't operating so she wrote to him directly.
She said the prison should allow inmates to receive puzzles, and at the very least she hopes the Saskatchewan prison staff will find a way to make literature accessible to all inmates for the remainder of the pandemic.
"I think people would be shocked to hear that Saskatchewan inmates are already locked down and they have no access to books and they aren't able to receive harmless items like sudokus, word searches and photographs or things like that."
The CSC media spokesperson said the library has been closed temporarily for residents in the medium-security unit because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
"This decision was made based on evidence indicating that books or printed material pose a risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus when passed from one person to another as they are considered high touch surfaces and are difficult to sanitize," he wrote. "To this effect, inmates in the medium-security unit are not able to borrow books from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary institutional library at this time."
He said normal library operations will resume once health officials give them the go ahead and that internally staff can make copies of sudokus and crosswords for inmates. The Saskatchewan Penitentiary is located about one kilometre west of Prince Albert, Sask. According to CSC data, there are 11 active COVID-19 cases in the medium security unit and there has been 284 positive cases to date.