ACLU and DOJ Sue S. Carolina Jailer Over Bible-Only Policy

MONCKS CORNER, S.C.—Surely, it can't be surprising that any state that would send Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham to the U.S. Senate would also be clueless enough to hire a sheriff who's stupid enough to ban inmates at the Hill-Finklea Detention Center in Berkeley County from reading anything held together by staples—like porn magazines.

And it's not just staples; the ban also includes any reading material held together by paper clips or "clasps of any kind."

Of course, it's possible that the ban is meant to prevent inmates from opening those magazines, unbending those staples and committing suicide by sticking themselves in the neck with the flimsy bits of metal, or unbending paperclips or clasps and using them to pick the locks on cell doors (assuming that Berkeley County still uses cells that lock with keys)—but there are no reports of those justifications being used by the jailers, though some officials said they could "pose a security risk."

The problem? Prisoners might jack off... and other prisoners might see them doing it.

"It's going to create all kinds of problems because you're going to have an issue with masturbation at that point," said detention center co-counsel Robin L. Jackson, on the move to relax the rules. "Then, you run the risk of not just sexual assault, but physical assault because men don't want to see other men doing those types of activities."

As this author can attest from personal experience, finding some privacy in typical prison to jack off isn't that difficult, and other prisoners will generally go out of their way not to notice.

However, with several news sources seizing on the porn angle, the ACLU, which first filed suit against the detention center and Berkeley County Sheriff H. Wayne DeWitt last October, has taken pains to deny that sexual material is the focus of its lawsuit.

"The latest thing they have come up with in response for preliminary injunction was the notion that we are trying to allow pornography into the jail," ACLU spokesman Will Matthews told the New York Daily News. "Absolutely nothing could be further for the truth."

Indeed, the ACLU's original suit came in response to prison officials having prevented inmates from receiving copies of the Prison Legal News, a prisoners' rights publication founded in 1990 by journalist Paul Wright, and which has successfully fought bans in prisons in Washington, Texas and several other states. According to Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard, "Since 2008, the journal's publishers have tried to send magazines, letters and self-help books about prison life to several inmates at the jail... Some were sent back, and in July a jail official wrote an email to the publishers referencing the jail's policy."

"Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft-back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher," 1st Sergeant K. Habersham said in the email. "They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books."

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asked to join the suit early in May after it became aware that jail officials had either prevented or made it more difficult for prisoners to obtain religious texts other than the Christian Bible.

"A Jewish prisoner seeking a Torah said he was told by jail officials that the prison only provides Bibles," reported the Christian Science Monitor. "Two Muslim prisoners seeking copies of the Koran were told the same thing, according to the [revised ACLU/DOJ] complaint. Jail officials reportedly told the prisoners that they could possess copies of the Torah or Koran in the jail, but only if a family member personally delivered the book to the jailhouse staff."

Such a restriction runs afoul of the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom, while the ban on stapled, paper-clipped and other loosely-bound material implicates the "freedom of speech, or of the press" clause. The situation is made even worse by the fact that the jail, which houses just under 200 inmates, has no library or other book/magazine repository.

The detention center has denied that it restricts prisoners' access to religious materials.

"The press seems to be saying that the only thing allowed in the jail is a Christian Bible, and that is just not true. And it has not been true," Sandra J. Senn, an attorney for the jail, told WXJT-TV in Jacksonville, Fla. "We allow all religious texts regardless of the religion and have for years. And there is plenty of reading materials in the jail such as novels, crossword puzzles [and] pamphlets."

Not so, said the Justice Department's complaint.

"The only book, magazine, newspaper or religious publication that Defendants consistently permit prisoners to possess is the Bible," reported Time magazine's Alexandra Silver, adding that the complaint cites several specific examples of the jail's "unlawful pattern or practice of denying mail to prisoners," including the case of one man who was denied materials for a correspondence education course.

Sheriff DeWitt defended his actions by claiming that the censorship policy is justified in order to preserve inmates' health and safety, and for "legitimate penological objectives"—but that's the same excuse the Justice Department itself used in defending its refusal to allow inmates at Guantanamo Bay access to attorneys and legal materials.

Hopefully, the truth of the jail's policies will be sorted out at the preliminary hearing, scheduled for later this month.