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PLN settles "Bible" censorship suit against South Carolina jail

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2012.
Press release - PLN settles "Bible" censorship suit against South Carolina jail 2012


Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

January 10, 2012

Publisher Settles Censorship Lawsuit Against South Carolina Jail; County Agrees to Change Policies and Pay Damages and Attorney Fees

Charleston, SC – Today, Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues and a project of the non-profit Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), settled a First Amendment censorship suit against the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.

The settlement includes changes at the Berkeley County Detention Center related to the receipt of publications and religious materials by jail prisoners, as well as the payment of damages, attorney fees and costs. The monetary payment represents the largest amount ever paid in a First Amendment jail or prison censorship case in the United States.

PLN filed suit after the Berkeley County Detention Center rejected PLN’s monthly publication and books sent to prisoners at the jail. At the time, jail Sergeant K. Habersham stated in an email that "inmates are only allowed to receive soft-back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher" and "are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books."

Berkeley County officials later claimed they did not have a Bible-only policy, and argued they had rejected PLN’s publication because it contained staples – even though the jail sold writing pads to prisoners that also contained staples.

The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case against Berkeley County due to concerns related to restrictions on publications and religious materials provided to prisoners. The case proceeded with extensive pleadings, discovery, depositions and expert reports concerning the jail’s mail and security policies. An expert for the Justice Department, John Clark, formerly a warden at the maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, found troubling security problems at the jail, but wrote that stapled publications were not a security threat.

"Rather than complying with the First Amendment, the county engaged in a scorched-earth approach to this litigation," stated PLN editor Paul Wright. "The monetary settlement paid by the county reflects that approach. County taxpayers are ill-served when public officials violate the Constitution and then try to defend their unlawful conduct with post-hoc rationalizations rather than remedy the violations. Had the county been willing to resolve this case promptly it would have concluded much sooner, at a lower cost to the county and to the Constitution."

In addition to agreeing to pay damages and attorney fees, the county agreed to extensive policy changes at the Berkeley County Detention Center. Those changes include implementing policies related to incoming publications and religious materials; providing training to jail staff related to such policies; and instituting an appeal and oversight process for when publications or religious materials are rejected or censored. Publications may not be rejected solely because they contain staples, and jail staff may remove staples prior to delivering publications to prisoners. The jail may reject publications deemed a "genuine threat" to safety and security at the facility.

The settlement agreement, entered as a consent injunction, resolves all claims raised by PLN and the Department of Justice. The agreement must be approved by the U.S. District Court.

PLN is represented by attorney Susan Dunn with the ACLU of South Carolina, as well as David M. Shapiro and David Fathi with the ACLU National Prison Project, and HRDC Chief Counsel Lance Weber. The case is Prison Legal News v. DeWitt, U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Case No. 2:10-cv-02594-MBS.


Prison Legal News (PLN) is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center. HRDC, founded in 1990 with offices in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes PLN, a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has approximately 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website ( that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.

For further information, please contact:

Paul Wright, Editor
Prison Legal News
P.O. Box 2420
Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 257-1342

Lance Weber
Chief Counsel, HRDC
P.O. Box 2420
Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 257-1342

David Fathi
National Prison Project of the ACLU
915 15th St., NW, 7th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 548-6603