Feds' request: Let us take on jail that bans all books except the Bible

The Justice Department, in its appeal to a federal judge in South Carolina asking to intervene in an ACLU lawsuit against a county sheriff, says the policy discriminates against non-Christians.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
An inmate holds his Bible at a Tennessee detention center. A jail in South Carolina only allows inmates to read the bible, and the Justice Department wants to step into an ACLU lawsuit against the sheriff who runs the jail.

The US Justice Department is asking a federal judge in South Carolina to allow it to intervene in a lawsuit against a sheriff who allegedly forbids prisoners in his jail from receiving books, magazines, or printed materials other than copies of the King James version of the Bible.

Berkeley County Sheriff H. Wayne DeWitt denies that restrictions imposed at the county lockup in Moncks Corner, S.C., rise to the level of a constitutional violation or violate US law.

He maintains that any actions taken at the jail are justified to preserve health and safety, and to further the pursuit of “legitimate penological objectives.”

Justice Department lawyers disagree.

“The only book, magazine, newspaper, or religious publication that [jail officials] consistently permit prisoners to possess is the Bible,” the Justice Department says in its complaint. “These practices discriminate against non-Christian prisoners in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

The First Amendment’s establishment clause forbids the government from favoring one religion over any other. The amendment also bars the government from interfering in private acts of worship.

Torah or Koran harder to obtain

A Jewish prisoner seeking a Torah said he was told by jail officials that the prison only provides Bibles. Two Muslim prisoners seeking copies of the Koran were told the same thing, according to the complaint.

Jail officials reportedly told the prisoners that they could possess copies of the Torah or Koran in the jail, but only if a family member personally delivered the book to the jailhouse staff.

“The freedom to practice one’s faith is among our most cherished rights, and the Justice Department is committed to defending that right,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a statement.

The Justice Department complaint says the jail’s practices violate the First Amendment and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Government lawyers are asking the federal judge in the case to declare the jail’s policies illegal and unconstitutional. They are also asking the judge to order the sheriff and his staff to “permit detainees and prisoners in their custody to have outside reading material.”

No library for prisoners

There are roughly 190 prisoners in the Berkeley County Detention Center. The jail does not have a library or other means of access to a range of reading material for inmates, the complaint says.

The original lawsuit was filed in October by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Prison Legal News, a monthly journal covering prison law issues. PLN is distributed to inmates across the country.

The ACLU suit says that since 2008 the jail has blocked delivery of copies of PLN and books discussing prisoner rights.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, praised the Justice Department for taking action against the jail.

“The fact that the Justice Department has chosen to intervene in this case should send a clear signal to jail officials that systematically denying detainees access to books, magazines, and newspapers is unconstitutional,” he said. “The policy in place at the Berkeley County Detention Center is nothing short of censorship, and there is no justification for shutting detainees off from the outside world in such a draconian way.”

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