Restricted Reading: South Carolina Jail Bans All Books Except for the Bible

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If you’re a criminal who likes to read — and/or religious, but not Christian — then the last place you want to be jailed in is Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

According to legal complaints, the only book, good or otherwise, that inmates at the Berkeley County Detention Center can readily get their hands on is the Bible. Granted, it’s a bestseller, and there’s a lot in those pages to keep one occupied and even entertained — mind-bending seven-day creation of the universe, violence, sex, walking on water, resurrection, etc. — but sometimes you just want to read an Agatha Christie mystery. Or, if you’re Jewish, the Torah, in a copy without the extra testament. Of particular interest to prisoners just might be reading material on prisoners’ rights.

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The U.S. Department of Justice, brandishing its own sacred text — the U.S. Constitution — has filed a complaint against the sheriff’s office that runs the alleged book-barring jail. It’s moving to join a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union last October. The ACLU suit was filed on behalf of Prison Legal News, whose publications, the suit alleges, have been turned away from the jail since 2008. The AP quotes an email, sent to PLN publishers, from jail official First Sgt. K. Habersham: “Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher…. They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books.”

The AP also quotes, however, the defendants’ attorney Sandy Senn, and according to her, all religious texts — yup, vampire and witchcraft ones included — have been allowed since 2009. Inmates “can even purchase Korans and things like that from the commissary if they want,” Senn says.

But according to the DOJ complaint, “the only book, magazine, newspaper or religious publication that Defendants consistently permit prisoners to possess is the Bible.” Not only does this violate the First Amendment (both its speech and establishment clauses), the DOJ charges, but also the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The DOJ 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.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Berkeley County Sheriff/defendant H. Wayne DeWitt “maintains that any actions taken at the jail are justified to preserve health and safety, and to further the pursuit of ‘legitimate penological objectives.’ ” By the way, among the books rejected by the jail, according to the ACLU, is one for prisoners called Protecting Your Health and Safety.

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As the case progresses, NewsFeed has some suggested reading for the county’s prison officials:

  1. The U.S. Constitution (helpful for those with careers in law enforcement)
  2. The Origin of Species (for variety)
  3. Anne of Green Gables (because we like it).

(via Christian Science Monitor)