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Chatham County Jail Reverses On Book Ban But Limits Number of Publications

Following a letter from the ACLU of Georgia, the Chatham County sheriff rescinded a jail policy that banned detainees from receiving books and magazines from outside sources. The ACLU still took issue with a revised policy that limits the number of publications detainees can possess.

The sheriff implemented a policy that prohibited detainees from receiving “books, magazines or other publications, by subscription, or directly from the publisher, a family member or any other person.” The policy took effect on March 3, 2019. It made books and magazines available only by means of a book cart, and detainees could only check out one book or magazine each week.

“We have never before encountered a policy that so completely restricts detained persons’ access to books and publications,” the ACLU wrote in an April 10, 2019, letter to Chatham County Sheriff John T. Wilcher. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment encompasses the right of people to receive books in jail. As one federal appeals court has recognized, ‘Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read. Forbid a person to read and you shut him out of the marketplace of ideas and opinions that it is the purpose of the free speech clause to protect.’”

The letter sparked a review of the policy, which resulted in the ban on receiving publications from outside sources. A new policy was put in place in June 2019. It allows books and magazines to come directly from publishers and vendors, but it limits the number a detainee can have at one time.

“It still limits possession to just four books, magazines, or newspapers at a time. We find that numerical limit to be arbitrary,” said ACLU of Georgia staff attorney Kosha Tucker. “We don’t know why the number four was chosen to be the limit.”

Issue was also taken on the vagueness of the term “sexually explicit.”

“The new policy has a blanket ban on quote sexually explicit material, and it doesn’t offer any sort of defining principals or guidance of what that means. So, it’s impermissibly vague, and over-broad,” Tucker said. 



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