ACLU, U.S. Justice Department In Court Tuesday Seeking Federal Court Order Blocking Unconstitutional Censorship Policy at South Carolina Jail
CHARLESTON, S.C. – The American Civil Liberties Union will ask a federal judge Tuesday to block the implementation of an unconstitutionally broad policy at a South Carolina jail that effectively bans many books, newspapers and magazines from being sent to prisoners. During a hearing in front of U.S. District Court Judge Margaret B. Seymour, the ACLU will argue that a policy which officials at the Berkeley County Detention Center in Moncks Corner, S.C. claim is intended to prevent prisoners from accessing pornography is in fact so sweeping that it has resulted in the banning of publications like Prison Legal News , a monthly journal on prison law distributed across the nation to prisoners, attorneys, judges, law libraries and others subscribers. The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit last year challenging the unconstitutional policy after jail officials refused to deliver copies of the journal and other magazines and books. The jail also bans all publications bound with staples, including Time, Newsweek, and Christianity Today, as well as Prison Legal News . The Jail claims that staples are a security threat, although the jail itself sold detainees legal pads containing staples until three months after the ACLU lawsuit was filed. “Jail officials are certainly entitled to enact reasonable policies limiting what sorts of things prisoners can receive in the mail, but those policies cannot trample on core constitutional principles,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “Banning books and magazines for no good reason unconstitutionally cuts prisoners off from the outside world, which can have a terrible impact upon their ability to successfully transition back into the community.” Under the policy, jail officials have testified that they would refuse to deliver copies of the Washington Post because they contained advertisements for beachwear, as well as pictures of the Venus Di Milo statue and Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting “The Birth of Venus.” Filed in October 2010 on behalf of Prison Legal News , the ACLU’s 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 it and other magazines and books to detainees. The ACLU lawsuit charges that since 2008, copies of Prison Legal News and books sent to detainees at Berkeley County have been returned to sender. 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. A federal judge last month granted a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to stand alongside Prison Legal News as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Justice Department officials argue the jail’s policy violates both the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a law passed by Congress in 2000 to protect the religious rights of prisoners and other institutionalized persons. “There is no excuse for unconstitutionally censoring materials sent to prisoners,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “Ensuring that prisoners maintain ties to the outside world while they are incarcerated is a key component in lowering recidivism rates, which in turn limits the number of people we need to lock up and saves taxpayers significant amounts of money.” 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 healthcare in prison.