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.