PLN Settles Censorship Suit Against South Carolina Jail; County Agrees to Pay $599,900 and Change Policies
The settlement includes changes at the Berkeley County Detention Center (BCDC) related to the receipt of publications and religious materials by jail prisoners, as well as the payment of $100,000 in damages and $499,900 in attorney fees and costs. The total monetary payment represents the largest amount ever paid in a First Amendment jail or prison censorship case in the United States.
PLN filed suit in October 2010 after the BCDC rejected PLN’s monthly publication and books sent to prisoners at the facility. At the time, jail sergeant K. Habersham stated in an email to PLN editor Paul Wright that “inmates are only allowed to receive soft-back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher” and “are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.38].
Berkeley County officials later claimed they did not have a Bible-only policy, and argued they had rejected PLN’s monthly publication because it contained staples – even though the jail concurrently sold writing pads to prisoners that contained staples.
The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case against Berkeley County due to concerns related to restrictions on publications and religious materials provided to prisoners. The case proceeded with extensive pleadings, discovery, depositions and expert reports concerning the jail’s mail and security policies.
An expert for the Justice Department, John Clark, formerly a warden at the maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, found troubling security problems at the jail but wrote that stapled publications were not a security threat.
“Rather than complying with the First Amendment, the county engaged in a scorched-earth approach to this litigation,” stated PLN editor Paul Wright. “The monetary settlement paid by the county reflects that approach. County taxpayers are ill-served when public officials violate the Constitution and then try to defend their unlawful conduct with post-hoc rationalizations rather than remedy the violations. Had the county been willing to resolve this case promptly it would have concluded much sooner, at a lower cost to the county and to the Constitution.”
In addition to agreeing to pay damages and attorney fees, the county agreed to extensive policy changes at the BCDC. Those changes include implementing policies related to incoming publications and religious materials; providing training to jail staff related to such policies; and instituting an appeal and oversight process for when publications or religious materials are rejected or censored. Publications may not be rejected solely because they contain staples, and jail staff may remove staples prior to delivering publications to prisoners. The jail may reject publications deemed a “genuine threat” to safety and security at the facility.
The settlement agreement, entered as a consent injunction, resolves all claims raised by PLN and the Department of Justice. The agreement was approved by the U.S. District Court.
“The rights to practice one’s faith and to be informed about matters of public interest are among our most cherished freedoms,” stated Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to vigorously enforcing the First Amendment and [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act] to ensure that freedom of expression and religious liberty remain protected.
Not only will this agreement uphold the Constitution, it will also promote the safety, security and good order of BCDC; assist in rehabilitating detainees; and ensure that the people of Berkeley County have confidence in the criminal justice system.”
PLN was ably represented by Susan Dunn with the ACLU of South Carolina, David M. Shapiro and David Fathi with the ACLU National Prison Project, and Human Rights Defense Center chief counsel Lance Weber. Attorney Sandy Senn represented the defendants. See: Prison Legal News v. DeWitt, U.S.D.C. (D. SC), Case No. 2:10-cv-02594-MBS.
Additional source: U.S. Dept. of Justice press release
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Related legal case
Prison Legal News v. DeWitt
|U.S.D.C. (D. SC), Case No. 2:10-cv-02594-MBS