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February 13, 2009

Ministry Sues for Access to Inmates

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections' refusal to allow a Christian ministry access to send Bibles, books about Jesus Christ and other religious materials to inmates has sparked a federal

Wingspread Christian Ministries, headquartered in Prairie Grove, Ark., and operated by Illinois-based Evangelists for Christ Inc., filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Muskogee.

Prison restrictions on prisoners' correspondence violate the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Oklahoma's Religious Freedom Act, the 12-page lawsuit petition claims.

"Restricting Wingspread's freedom of speech and religion is not only harmful to our constitutional rights, it is also very harmful to those within prison walls in need of spiritual sustenance," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville,
Va.-based civil liberties organization, which represents the plaintiffs.

Neville Massie, executive assistant to Oklahoma Corrections Director Justin Jones, said the department would not comment on pending litigation.

Wingspread sends similar religious materials to prisoners in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, New York and\ Texas but "has not encountered restrictions upon and impediments to its ministry similar to those encountered in Oklahoma," the lawsuit states.

According to the suit, Oklahoma prison regulations mandate that "all orders for publications will be made directly to the publisher of the material or to a legitimate bookstore."

The regulation does not allow a ministry to send Bibles or other religious materials; only a publisher, bookstore or book dealer may do so, according to the plaintiffs. Wingspread said it also has tried to send money orders worth $15 to $20 to indigent or mentally ill prisoners
during the Christmas season, only to have them returned by prison officials. The ministry said it also was informed that while individuals could write letters to inmates, ministries could not.

"Because Wingspread's ministry involves personal communication with prisoners and building a personal relationship with the prisoner, correspondence through the mail is crucial to the pursuit and success of this ministry," plaintiffs' attorney Joseph Clark wrote in the petition.


I am not from the state of Oklahoma but I have been involved in running state prisons and I can tell you that prison regulations are invariably the result of abuses and incidents that have resulted in operational problems in running the prison. The CT article does not disclose the efforts that the ministry teams attempted. Did they try to mail in the books from a publisher or a bookstore? That is always the preferred means of sending materials to inmates in prison systems, certainly the one I worked for. The package room's job in processing incoming packages is to look for contraband including money and drugs, and these are not items that bookstores and publishers are likely to send out. Christian organization or not, the motivation of the sender is not the issue, the issue is to keep out contraband which causes incidents, fights and drug use etc. As a christian who was involved in developing prison regulations and directives I would urge the ministry teams to seek to work with the prison administrators. If inmates are reading they are not cause for concern to the officers running the dorms, cellblocks or yards.

Someday, the prison officials will stand before the Lord Jesus Christ and they will give their account.

I do believe in religious freedom and free speech under the U.S. Constitution. i do believe that the power of Christ changes the prisoners' life.