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PLN, represented by ACLU, targets censorship at SC jail

Post and Courier, Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN, represented by ACLU, targets censorship at SC jail - Post and Courier 2010

Berkeley jail target of lawsuit

Bible is only reading material allowed, according to magazine editor

By Bo Petersen

Thursday, October 7, 2010

MONCKS CORNER -- Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt and county jail officials are being sued over denying inmates access to reading materials other than the Bible.

The lawsuit alleges that the jail does not deliver publications and some letters to inmate cells, violating the First Amendment right of free speech.

The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Charleston by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the plaintiff, Prison Legal News, an inmate-subscriber magazine.

"Many detainees are held at the Detention Center -- and thus deprived of all access to magazines, newspapers and books other than the Bible -- for months and years on end," the lawsuit alleges.

The litigation goes on to say copies of the magazine and other materials from that company were returned stamped "Info not allowed," "Book not allowed" and "Magazines not allowed."

DeWitt was in training classes Wednesday. In a comment relayed through staff, he said he had not been served the lawsuit yet and was not familiar with the allegations in it.

"This office doesn't comment on pending litigation," County Attorney Nicole Ewing said.

The case stems from a 2008 complaint by inmate Thomas Dalton, a Moncks Corner man who said that he was not receiving issues of the magazine after subscribing to it.

Since Dalton's complaint, a dozen or more other inmates also have made complaints, said the magazine's editor, Paul Wright. The news magazine and associated books published by the company feature topics such as inmate legal issues and rights and how to get an education.

"We think these are books that incarcerated persons should be able to get. What's alarming too is that they can't get any news publication," Wright said.

According to the lawsuit, a jail official, 1st Sgt. K. Habersham, wrote to Wright on July 12 about the policy.

"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," she wrote, according to the suit.

And the Hill-Finklea Detention Center confirmed for The Associated Press on Wednesday the lawsuit's statement that the jail doesn't have a library.

"It's a question of their rights, but it's also a question, I think, of public safety," said Victoria Middleton, ACLU South Carolina executive director.

"We're supposed to be trying to rehabilitate these people and equip them so they can return to society as safer and better citizens. Denying their right to have access to information about legal issues and society impedes their re-entry."

Wright said the lawsuit is the 12th similar suit filed on the company's behalf. Nine have been won, and two others were dismissed after the incarcerating facility changed its policies, he said. Prison Legal News has 7,000 subscribers and its website gets 100,000 hits per month, he said.

Dalton is now an inmate in Florence County jail. He was sentenced this year to 10 years in prison for organizing a scheme that tried to fleece $1.43 million from the government by filing more than 160 fraudulent returns with the Internal Revenue Service. The claims were filed while he served time in a federal prison in Bennettsville.

During his August sentencing hearing, Dalton said he started the scheme while serving a sentence for a 1998 credit card fraud conviction, according to a U.S. attorney involved with the case at the time.