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PLN Sues South Carolina Jail that Bans All Reading Material Except Bibles

On October 6, 2010, Prison Legal News, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Defense Center staff attorney Lance Weber, filed suit in federal court challenging an unconstitutional policy at the Berkeley County Detention Center in Moncks Corner, South Carolina that bans all magazines, newspapers and books – except for the Bible – from being sent to prisoners.

The lawsuit charges that jail officials violated PLN’s rights under the free speech, establishment and due process clauses of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by refusing to deliver PLN’s monthly publication and books to prisoners at the facility.

“Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft back [B]ibles in the mail directly from the publisher. They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books,” a jail sergeant stated in an e-mail to PLN staff.

“This is nothing less than unjustified censorship,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU’s 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.”
 The lawsuit contends that since 2008, PLN’s monthly publication and books sent to prisoners at the Berkeley County jail have been returned to sender or simply discarded. The books rejected by jail officials include “Protecting Your Health and Safety,” which is designed to inform prisoners about the legal rights they have regarding their health and safety – including the right to medical care and to be free from inhumane treatment.

“We have a clear First Amendment right to communicate with the prisoners at the Berkeley County Detention Center by sending them our publication and books,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “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 jail, meaning that prisoners incarcerated at the facility for extended periods of time are 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,” noted 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 and several other jail officials. See: Prison Legal News v. DeWitt, U.S.D.C. (D. SC), Case No. 2:10-cv-02594-MBS.

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Related legal case

Prison Legal News v. DeWitt