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Ltr to Vadoc Re Religious Censorship 2009

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July 9,2009
Superintendent Joseph Higgs, Jr.
Rappahannock Regional Jail
P.O. Box 3300
1745 Jefferson Davis Highway
Stafford, Virginia 22555-3300
(540) 288-5245

Dear Superintendent Higgs:
We write based on concerns brought to our attention by Anna Williams, whose son was
detained at the Rappahannock Regional Jail (the "Jail"). Ms. Williams, a devout Christian,
wanted to support her son spiritually during his confinement at the Jail by sending him religious
language, including passages from the Bible.
Rather than delivering these letters to Ms. Williams' son, the Jail expurgated the religious
material, citing variously as the reason for censorship "Internet Pages" and "Religious Material
from Home." Such censorship destroyed the religious messages Ms. Williams sought to convey
to her son and reduced her letters to something resembling Swiss cheese. Using scissors or a
hobby knife, Jail officials literally cut the religious portions out of Ms. Williams' letters and
delivered only the snippets that did not quote the Bible. For example, because the Jail excised
Biblical passages, all Ms. Williams' son received of a three page letter was the salutation, the
first paragraph of the letter, and the closing, "Love, Mom."
The Jail censored any number of Biblical passages in Ms. Williams' letters, banning
passages from the Book of Proverbs, the Book of James, and the Book of Matthew, among many
others. The Jail also refused to deliver an article entitled Coping with Loneliness, a Christian
guide that Ms. Williams hoped would help her son confront his isolation at the Jail. I
It is astonishing that such censorship of the Bible and other religious material could occur
in an American jail in the Twenty-First Century. Even the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had
ready access to scripture while incarcerated in a Siberian prison camp in tsarist Russia,2 and on
our shores, "[t]here is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this

The Jail placed the expurgated portions of the letters in the "personal property" of Ms.
Williams' son, meaning they were not given to him until he was transferred out of the Jail.

2 Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 417 n.15 (1989) (citing F. Dostoyevsky, The House of the
Dead 40 (Penguin 1985)).


country.,,3 Even after "the prison gates slam behind an inmate," the Constitution protects "those
precious personal rights by which we satisfy [the] basic yearnings of the human spirit.,,4
Prohibiting Ms. Williams from sending scripture to her son prevents such "basic
yearnings of the human spirit" from being realized and violates the First Amendment to the
United States Constitution, which protects free speech and the free exercise of religion. s Jails
may limit detainees' right to free speech and free exercise only through restrictions "reasonably
related to legitimate penological interests," such as jail security. 6 Bible verses do not jeopardize
security, and there is no legitimate penological interest in censoring them. Indeed, federal courts
have struck down bans on a wide range of religious materials infinitely more controversial than
the Bible. 7
In addition to violating the constitutional rights of Jail detainees, purging Ms. Williams'
letters of scripture violates her own free speech rights. "The Supreme Court has clearly
recognized a First Amendment interest in those who wish to communicate with prison inmates,"S
Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556 (1974); see also Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 84
(1987) ("[P]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of
the Constitution.").

Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396,428 (1974) (Marshall, J., concurring), overruled in part
on other grounds, Thornburgh, 490 U.S. 401.


S U.S.

Const., amend. 1.

Turner, 482 U.S. at 89 (standard for prisoner free speech claims); O'Lone v. Estate of
Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342,349 (1987) (same standard applied to prisoner free exercise claims). The
TurnerlO'Lone standard applies to convicted prisoners, and even greater protections may apply
to pre-trial detainees held in jails. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 545 (1979) ("[P]retrial
detainees, who have not been convicted of any crimes, retain at least those constitutional rights
that we have held are enjoyed by convicted prisoners.").

McCabe v. Arave, 827 F.2d 634, 638 (9th Cir. 1987) ("[P]rison authorities have no legitimate
penological interest in excluding religious books from the prison [chapel] library merely because
they contain racist views. Courts have repeatedly held that prisons may not ban all religious
literature that reflects racism."); see also Williams v. Brimeyer, 116 F.3d 351,354 (8th Cir. 1997)
(holding that prison violated prisoner's First Amendment rights by banning Church of Jesus
Christ Christian publications that advocated racial separatism, affirming award of punitive
damages, and stating, "[t]he incoming publications did not counsel violence, and there is no
evidence that they have ever caused a disruption. Certainly the views expressed in the
publications are racist and separatist, but religious literature may not be banned on that ground
alone."); Aikens v. Jenkins, 534 F.2d 751, 756 (7th Cir. 1976) (holding prison regulation
overbroad because "[t]he phrase 'material that seriously degrades race or religion' is not narrow
enough to reach only that material which encourages violence") (citation omitted); Nichols v.
Nix, 810 F. Supp. 1448, 1452-53 (S.D. Iowa 1993) (holding that prison violated prisoners' First
Amendment rights by banning publications that did not advocate violence but did make a series
of offensive and racist assertions), aff'd, No. 93-1490, 1994 WL 20653 (8th Cir. Jan. 28, 1994).

SMontcalm Publ'g Corp. v. Beck, 80 F.3d 105, 109 (4th Cir. 1996).

and the Constitution guarantees "free citizens" the right to "reach[ ] out to those on the
'inside. ",9 Not only did the Jail censor Ms. Williams' letters, but Jail officials compounded the
violation of Ms. Williams' constitutional rights by failing even to notify her of the censorship.
The Supreme Court has held that "the decision to censor or withhold delivery of a particular
letter [to a prisoner] must be accompanied by minimum procedural safeguards," including notice
to the sender. 10
The Jail's policies also violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
("RLUIPA"), II which provides even greater protection for prisoners' religious exercise than the
First Amendment. In enacting RLUIPA, Congress found that '''frivolous or arbitrary' barriers
impeded institutionalized persons' religious exercise," and heard testimony that religious texts
such as '''the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud ... were fre~uently treated with contempt and were
confiscated, damaged or discarded' by prison officials.,,1 In response, Congress mandated that
the government must not impose a substantial burden on a prisoner's religious exercise unless
the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. 13 In
this case, there is no conceivable interest in banning the Bible, much less a compelling one.
The explanations proffered for censoring Ms. Williams' letters only confirm the illegality
of the Jail's actions. The Jail sometimes claimed to censor the letters because the letters
contained "Internet Material," but courts have squarely rejected the argument that prisons and
jails may ban correspondence merely because the sender printed material from the Internet. 14
Even more troubling, the Jail used the notation "Religious Material Sent from Home" as
a justification for censorship, meaning that the Jail censored material precisely because it was
religious in nature. "At a minimum, the protections of the Free Exercise Clause pertain if the

Thornburgh, 490 U.S. at 407.

10 Procunier, 416 U.S. at 417; see also Montcalm Publ'g Corp., 80 F.3d at 109-10 (prison
officials must provide notice to the sender and an opportunity to respond when they reject the
sender's mail).
11 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-l et seq.

Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 716 & n.5 (2005) (quoting 146 Congo Rec. 16698, 16699
(2000) (joint statement of Sen. Hatch and Sen. Kennedy on RLUIPA) & Hearing on Protecting
Religious Freedom After Boerne v. Flores before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the
House Committee on the Judiciary, 105th Cong., 2d Sess., pt. 2, at 58-59 (1998) (prepared
statement of Donald W. Brooks, Reverend, Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma».


42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1.

14 Clement v. California Dep't o/Corr., 364 F.3d 1148,1152 (9th Cir. 2004) ("Prohibiting all
internet-generated mail is an arbitrary way to achieve a reduction in mail volume."); Jackson v.
Pollard, No. 06-3000, 2006 WL 3154621, at *4 (7th Cir. Nov. 2, 2006) (prison failed to justify
rule that banned responses to prisoners' web pages if the responses were printed email messages
but allowed handwritten responses); Canadian Coalition Against Death Penalty v. Ryan, 269 F.
Supp. 2d 1199, 1203 (D. Ariz. 2003) (prison rule banning prisoners from corresponding with
internet service providers violates First Amendment).


law at issue discriminates against some or all religious beliefs.... "15 The principle that religious
correspondence must not be saddled with restrictions inapplicable to non-religious
correspondence is so settled in the law that prison and jail officials who impose such restrictions
forfeit qualified immunity and become subject to suit in their personal capacities. 16
In order to remedy the illegal practices described above, we request that you

Guarantee in writing that the Rappahannock Regional Jail will not censor Biblical
passages from letters written to detainees.


Revise the Rappahannock Regional Jail written Inmate Mail Policy to state that
letters will not be censored merely because they contain religious material.


Revise the Rappahannock Regional Jail written Inmate Mail Policy to state that
letters will not be censored merely because they contain material printed from the
Internet or copied from the Internet and inserted into a letter using a word
processor's "cut and paste" feature.

We look forward to hearing from you and hope that this matter can be resolved without
resort to litigation.


Church ofthe Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City ofHialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 532 (1993).

16 Bess v. Alameida, No. 03-2498,2007 WL 2481682, at *17 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 29, 2007) (denying
qualified immunity where prison restrictions "applied solely to religious publications,
distinguishing between religious publications and all other publications").



W;tf ?U-


David M. Shapiro
Staff Counsel
Amy Fettig
Staff Counsel
915 15th St., NW, 7th Fl.
National Prison Project ofthe
American Civil Liberties
Union Foundation
Washington, DC 20005

Daniel Mach
Director of Litigation
ACLU Program on Freedom
of Religion and Belief
915 15th St., NW, 5th Fl.
Washington, DC 20005

Rebecca K. Glenberg
Legal Director
ACLU of Virginia
530 E. Main St., Ste. 310
Richmond, VA

Eric C. Rassbach
National Litigation Director
The Becket Fund
for Religious Liberty
1350 Connecticut
Suite 605
Washington, DC 20036

Ruth Flower
Legislative Director
Friends Committee on
National Legislation
245 2nd St. NE
Washington D.C. 20002

Pat Nolan
Vice President
Prison Fellowship
44180 Riverside Parkway
Lansdowne, VA 20176

John W. Whitehead
The Rutherford Institute
P.O. Box 7482
Charlottesville, VA 22906

Rev. C. Douglas Smith
Executive Director
Virginia Interfaith Center for
Public Policy
1716 East Franklin Street
Richmond, VA 23223


Mr. C. Douglas Barnes, Interim County Administrator, Spotsylvania County
(via email
Mr. Beverly R. Cameron, Interim City Manager, City of Fredericksburg
(via email to
Mr. Travis Quesenbery, County Administrator, King George County
(via email
Mr. Anthony Romanello, County Administrator, Stafford County
(via email