ACLU Lawsuit Charges That Jail Policy Banning Books And Magazines Is Unconstitutional
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CHARLESTON, SC – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit challenging an unconstitutional policy at the Berkeley County Detention Center in Moncks Corner, S.C. barring all books, magazines and newspapers – except for the Bible – from being sent to prisoners.
Filed on behalf of Prison Legal News, a monthly journal on prison law distributed across the nation to prisoners, attorneys, judges, law libraries and other subscribers, the lawsuit charges that jail officials violate the rights of Prison Legal News under the speech, establishment and due process clauses of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by refusing to deliver copies of the journal and other magazines and books to detainees.
"This is nothing less than unjustified censorship," said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. "There is no legitimate justification for denying detainees access to periodicals and, in the process, shutting them off from the outside world in draconian ways."
Prison Legal News, which provides information about legal issues such as court access, disciplinary hearings, prison conditions, excessive force, mail censorship, prison and jail litigation, visitation, telephones, religious freedom, prison rape and the death penalty, has been published since 1990 and has about 7,000 subscribers across the country. It also distributes various books aimed at fostering a better understanding of criminal justice policies and allowing prisoners to educate themselves in areas such as legal research, how to write a business letter and health care in prison.
The ACLU lawsuit charges that since 2008, copies of Prison Legal News and other books sent to detainees at Berkeley County have been returned to sender, or simply discarded. The books rejected by the jail's officials include "Protecting Your Health and Safety," which is designed to help prisoners not represented by an attorney and explains the legal rights inmates have regarding health and safety – including the right to medical care and to be free from inhumane treatment.
Prison Legal News is also prohibited from sending to detainees copies of the book "Prisoners' Self-Help Litigation Manual," which is published by Oxford University Press and which serves as a guide for prisoners and prisoner advocates seeking to understand the rights guaranteed to prisoners by law and how to protect those rights.
"We have a clear First Amendment right to communicate with the detainees at the Berkeley County Detention Center by sending them our journal and other books," said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News. "Prisoners do not cede their core constitutional rights simply by being incarcerated, and their being able to receive the material we send is essential to ensuring that their rights are upheld."
There is no library at the Berkeley County Detention Center, meaning that some prisoners who are incarcerated for extended periods of time have been deprived of all access to magazines, newspapers and books – other than the Bible – for months or even years on end. There is also no process through which the unconstitutional policy can be challenged.
"The Berkeley County Detention Center is totally out of step with most other jails around the country that recognize not just that censorship of this sort is clearly unconstitutional but that providing prisoners with access to books and periodicals is an important lifeline to the outside world," said Victoria Middleton, Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina. "We should do as much as possible to aid prisoners' successful transition back into society, not impede it."
Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, the lawsuit names as defendants Berkeley County Sheriff H. Wayne DeWitt, as well as a number of other corrections officials.
A copy of today's lawsuit is available online at: www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/prison-legal-news-et-al-v-berkeley-county-sheriff-et-al-complaint
Additional information about Prison Legal News is available online at: www.prisonlegalnews.org