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U.S. Department of Justice intervenes in PLN suit against SC jail, Jan. 1, 2011.
U.S. Department of Justice intervenes in PLN suit against SC jail - 2011

DOJ wants in suit on SC jail's Bible-only policy

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department believes a South Carolina jail is violating inmates' free speech rights by barring them from any reading material other than the Bible, and the government sought Tuesday to join a lawsuit against the jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against the Berkley County jail in October, seeking to overturn the policy.

U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles wrote in court documents that the government thought it was necessary to intervene because of the constitutional issues at stake.

"In the past two years, defendants have denied numerous prisoner requests for expressive material, including educational materials required by a correspondence education course, other books, magazines and legal newsletters," Nettles wrote. "Defendants compound these restrictions by failing to provide a library or any other avenue through which prisoners can access expressive material."

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Prison Legal News, a monthly journal on prison law. The ACLU argued that officials at the jail in Moncks Corner, about 100 miles southeast of Columbia, are violating the magazine's and inmates' constitutional rights.

Since 2008, the publishers of Prison Legal News have tried to send magazines, letters and self-help books about prison life to several inmates at the jail, the lawsuit said. Some were sent back, and in July a jail official wrote an e-mail 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," First Sergeant K. Habersham said in the email. "They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books."

An attorney for Sheriff Wayne DeWitt and other jail officials said she was surprised to learn of the Justice Department's involvement and has asked to meet with Nettles as soon as possible. Sandy Senn also said that, since June 2009, Berkeley County inmates have been allowed to receive any type of religious materials — including vampire and witchcraft texts — as long as the books are soft-sided and meet other physical requirements.

"We've let all sorts of material come in," Senn said. "They can even purchase Korans and things like that from the commissary if they want."

In October, jail officials told The Associated Press the jail didn't have a library and that the only reading material its roughly 450 inmates were allowed to have were paperback Bibles.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, applauded the government's request.

"The fact that DOJ has chosen to intervene in this case should send a clear signal to jail officials that systematically denying detainees access to all books, magazines and newspapers is unconstitutional," Fathi said. "The policy in place at the Berkeley County Detention Center is nothing short of censorship, and there is no justification for shutting detainees off from the outside world in such a draconian way."

In addition to unspecified punitive damages, the lawsuit also asks a federal judge to order the Bible-only policy halted and to let a jury hear the case. Jury selection is scheduled for January.