Reading Is Fundamentally Forbidden

Prison Legal News fights for the First Amendment at South Carolina's Berkeley County Detention Center.

The Berkeley County Detention Center (BCDC) in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, houses approximately 350 detainees. “It’s primarily a pre-trial detention facility that holds individuals who are pending trial and presumed innocent,” explains David Shapiro, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. Some BCDC inmates are there for just a few days. Others, including many who are being held on contempt of court orders for failing to pay child support, remain longer, sometimes for as long as two years or more. Justice moves slowly in the United States, and it moves even slower in Moncks Corner, due to its highly restrictive policy regarding the reading materials it allows detainees to access.

In the world of prison, hardcover books are often deemed dangerous because of their potential utility as weapons or body armor, and reading material mailed directly from friends or family is discouraged because of its potential for hiding contraband. Thus, like many institutions, BCDC only allows detainees access to softcover books shipped directly from publishers or bookstores. Inmates can also receive magazines and newspapers shipped directly from their publishers, but only if they do not contain staples and only if they do not include “material that would encourage deviant sexual behavior” or “inappropriate” photos.

The ban against staples, which exists because detainees reportedly use them to pick locks, jam toilets, damage lights, and fashion tattoo needles, means that publications like Time, Newsweek, and the Christian devotional Our Daily Bread are not allowed at BCDC. The prohibitions against inappropriate photos and material that encourages deviant sexual behavior are interpreted with comically frightening broadness. In an April 2011 deposition that occurred as part of a lawsuit that a publication called Prison Legal News has filed against BCDC, Katie Shuler, an administrative specialist in charge of mail processing at the facility, explained that any material that references sex qualifies as “encouraging deviant sexual behavior.” An “inappropriate” photo, meanwhile, is any photo that shows drugs, alcohol, weapons, or human beings depicted with a “lack of clothing.”

Publications that include such references or depictions are prohibited in their entirety. If, for example, an issue of The Washington Post contains an advertisement for Bloomingdale’s that depicts a woman wearing underwear, Shuler would refuse to deliver the entire issue. If an issue of USA Today contains a vacation ad depicting a woman in a bikini, it would also be banned in its entirety. Immodest statuary is not exempt from the policy: Shuler explained that she would reject any publication containing an image of the Venus de Milo. Beer and cigarette ads also render publications impermissible. Outside of, say, Highlights for Children, it’s hard to think of publications that are acceptable under BCDC’s current guidelines. As it turns out, Highlights doesn’t make the cut either: It’s stapled.
Remarkably, BCDC’s current policy regarding inmate reading materials is actually far more expansive than its old one.

Paul Wright, the publisher of Prison Legal News, first learned about BCDC’s old policy, which limited incoming inmate mail to personal letters and a limited number of photographs, in 2008. Prison Legal News is a 56-page, staple-bound publication that is printed monthly on black and white newsprint. It has a circulation of 7,000 and is distributed in approximately 3,000 correctional facilities in the U.S., including some maximum-security prisons. A wholly owned subsidiary of a Washington, DC non-profit called the Human Rights Defense Center, it includes articles about prison conditions and other issues of interest to incarcerated individuals. In addition to articles with headlines like “Ninth Circuit Reverses Grant of Injunctive Relief in Ex Post Facto Challenge to Marsy’s Law” and  “California Prisoners Still Forced to Drink Arsenic-laced Water,” it features advertisements for legal books, legal services, attorneys, correspondence courses, pen pal organizations, and catalogs for “sexy/adult theme photos.” Some of these latter ads include tiny photos of women in near-nude or nude-but-obscured poses.

Wright says he began to look more closely at BCDC’s policies regarding reading materials after he had tried sending copies of Prison Legal News and other materials to inmates at the facility that had requested them, only to have BCDC return them with notations like “Books Not Allowed,” “Publications not allowed,” and “Info not allowed.”

Wright wasn’t surprised that BCDC was rejecting his organization’s materials. “We’re pretty much the only publication that offers any type of criticism of the prison status quo,” he says, and as such, many institutions have used various pretexts since its founding in 1990 to try to keep it out of their facilities. At BCDC, however, the effort to ban reading materials was somewhat unique. “You cannot get any type of Newspaper here in jail,” a BCDC official reportedly told detainee Richard Harris in September 2008. “I am being denied access to all forms of media. No books, magazines, television or radio,” detainee Willie Williams testified in a 2009 grievance he filed against the institution.

There was at least one exception to the media blackout, however, as Wright discovered when he sent an email to the facility requesting a more thorough explanation for why it kept returning copies of Prison Legal News and other materials that detainees there had requested. In July 2010, he received the following reply from a BCDC employee, 1st Sergeant Kendra Habersham. “Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher,” Habersham’s email reply read. “They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books.”

In addition to its restrictive mail policy, Wright eventually learned, it also had no prison library. But this didn’t mean inmates there had no choice whatsoever regarding reading materials. If they wanted to read the King James version of the Bible, BCDC actually made that available to them for free. And if they wanted to read some other version of the Bible, it sold additional translations in its commissary.

Inmates seeking other religious texts had much less access to them. Getting them through the mail was not permitted, but in theory, at least, a friend or family member could deliver one during a personal visit. In May 2010, for example, a Jewish inmate named Bryan Adkins requested a Torah. “Have your family bring a Koran in and we will give it to you,” he was reportedly told. When a Muslim inmate requested a Koran and arranged for his girlfriend to bring it in, BCDC reportedly refused to deliver it to him.

On October 6, 2010, with assistance from the ACLU, Prison Legal News filed a lawsuit against BCDC on the grounds that its policies violate both the First and the 14th Amendments. In May 2011, the U.S. Justice Department joined the lawsuit, exclaiming that BCDC was restricting detainees’ access to a “breathtaking array of books, publications, and religious and educational materials.”

In May, Sandra Senn, an attorney representing the BCDC, insisted that its restrictions against expressive materials had been exaggerated by Prison Legal News and the ACLU. “We allow all religious texts regardless of the religion and have for years,” Senn exclaimed. “And, there is plenty of reading materials in the jail such as novels, cross-word puzzles, pamphlets.”

If this is true, however, it’s a recent development. Indeed, one document that has been made public as a result of the lawsuit is a mail log that BCDC maintained from 2005 to 2010. In it, it lists the reasons why various mailings were not delivered to their intended recipients. “No novals (sic)” reads a notation from October 8, 2010. “No jokes,” reads another one dated July 12, 2010. “No magazines,” “no newspapers,” “no puzzles,” “no calendar,” “no bookmarks,” “map not allowed,” “no media/printed material,” “info not allowed,” additional entries exclaim. Finally, in case you were wondering, “sonograms” were not allowed at BCDC during this time either.

According to the testimony of Katie Shuler, detainees had not been permitted to receive any non-religious materials prior to 2011. As late as February 14, 2011, the mail log shows an entry being rejected because it is “not religious.”

Meanwhile, until a judge rules otherwise, BCDC’s current policy against “inappropriate” photos remains in place, and was invoked 114 times between January 1 and April 4 this year to reject publications the institution had received. The BCDC also continues to wage its war on staples, which means Prison Legal News won’t be making it into the facility anytime soon either. “Prison Legal News is delivered without incident to prisoners in 50 states, including to prisoners in the federal super-max facility in Florence, Colorado, which is the most high-security prison in the country,” the ACLU’s David Shapiro remarks. “If staples aren’t a security concern in much higher facilities, they’re certainly not a security concern in the BCDC.”

“Above and beyond that these overly broad bans are unconstitutional and violate the 1st Amendment rights of prisoners and the publishers who want to communicate with them, I think they’re really bad public policy,” says Prison Legal News’ Paul Wright. “It’s not just us they’re banning—they’re also banning the local hometown newspaper, the local weeklies, things that tie people to their communities. Why do they want to discourage reading? How is this helping society in any way?”

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. This column first appeared at Reason.com.





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