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Prison Ministry Sues Indiana Jail Over Book Ban

Unshackled Hearts is a central Indiana prison ministry that says its mission is to bring spiritual “restoration and freedom” to incarcerated Hoosiers through bible study, positive communication, and heart healing. But it hit a wall at the Howard County Jail (HCJ) in Kokomo on January 1, 2023, when a new policy took effect. Now that all books are banned for jail detainees, Unshackled Hearts is suing the jail to reverse the policy.

To fulfill its mission, the group offers a bible to any prisoner in central Indiana who requests one. After that, group members maintain communication with prisoners through regular letters and emails. But the recent policy changes ended the practice of sending bibles to prisoners seeking spiritual redemption.

The jail’s book ban has just a few exceptions, too, including one for “the holy scripture” donated by a “verified religious organization.” The policy otherwise allows detainees to receive books sent only through a publisher and not distributors, such as Amazon.

Before the policy change, Unshackled Hearts would ship its reading material to prisoners using Amazon. Its lawsuit notes that a book delivered by Amazon is less likely to contain contraband than a book delivered by, say, a prisoner’s ex-wife. Also, Amazon offers free returns, so if the package is rejected by the facility or the prisoner has been released or transferred, no extra cost is tallied. The complaint asserts that such restrictions violate the First Amendment and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

According to the complaint, the jail has offered an option to Unshackled Hearts: The group can donate books to be included on the jail’s book cart. Unshackled Hearts argues that a book cart is not a solution, since it provides no guarantee that a particular book gets to the prisoner who requested it.

The case is pending in federal court for the Southern District of Indiana, and PLN will update developments as they are available. Unshackled Hearts is represented by attorneys from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. See: Unshackled Hearts, Inc. v. Howard Cty. Sheriff, USDC (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:23-cv-01079. 

Additional sources: Kokomo Tribune, Reason