May 9, 2011

Berkeley County, SC to inmates: read the Good Book or nothing at all


Berkeley County, South Carolina thinks it has solved some of the thorniest questions of criminal rehabilitation and is doubling down on a controversial policy that allows inmates to read nothing but paperback bibles.

Alexandra Silver reported for Time in April that the Department of Justice had sent a letter to the Berkeley County sheriff’s department warning that the Bible-only policy for inmates was not only a violation of the First Amendment, but also potentially a violation of “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.”

As it happens, the DOJ wanted to do more than send a letter. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the DOJ’s interest in the matter was so keen that they were seeking to join a suit filed by the ACLU back in October against the sheriff’s department.

Last week the DOJ got its wish when a federal judge allowed them to join the suit. And now, according to a report in the Associated Press by Meg Kinnard, in addition to the suit the ACLU is asking a federal judge to block Berkeley County’s bible-only policy.

As Kinnard’s report notes, the suit began when the sheriff’s dept. refused to allow inmates to receive the Human Rights Defense Center monthly newsletter, the Prison Legal News. The HRDC had been trying to send inmates copies of the newsletter since 2008 and, after they complained to the sheriff’s dept. for a couple of years, they were sent an email back in July that was meant to clarify their policy:  ”Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft-back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher,” 1st Sergeant K. Habersham wrote. “They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books.” Well of course! Makes perfect sense!

So why weren’t the inmates allowed to receive the Prison Legal News, despite the fact that it might actually be of some use to the inmates (which, really, who wants that)?

Staples. That’s right, the staples included in the newsletter presented a “security risk” and is therefore considered worthy of the Constitution-violating book ban. And as Berkeley County Sheriff H. Wayne DeWitt tells the Monitor, health and safety is job #1, somehow making his policy within the bounds of ”legitimate penological objectives.”

“Legitimate” I guess, if you don’t give a shit about the Constitution. But then, I suppose Dewitt is only a sheriff…