August 12, 2009
Virginia Jail Agrees to Stop Censoring Religious Mail
A Virginia jail will stop censoring religious mail after protests from civil rights organizations that clerks had turned Bible-quoting missives from an inmate's mother into tattered strips of paper signed "Love, Mom."
Rappahannock Regional Jail authorities agreed to change the policy after receiving a letter signed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Prisons may block writings that pose security threats, including hate speech and X-rated images, but must allow access to otherwise religious materials, according to several court rulings and federal law.
"They can't treat religious materials like a knife or drugs or pornography," said Eric Rassbach, national litigation director for the Becket Fund.
Jail officials said the censorship was not motivated by content, but rather due to a policy that prohibits inmates from receiving swaths of computer printouts, which had been used to clog toilets and otherwise harass the guards. The cut-up correspondence in question had included
Christian material printed out from the Internet, marked up by the inmate's mother.
The amended policy will allow such messages to remain unscathed, "subject to the condition that (inmates) can only retain mail in their cell that can be stored neatly within the storage bin of the bunk and is not a fire hazard," wrote Joseph Higgs Jr., jail superintendent, in a statement. The ACLU announced the new policy on Monday (Aug. 10).
Rassbach said religious content clearly played a role in the censorship, however, and added that he hoped the successful outcry over this case would prompt others to think twice about maintaining or initiating similar practices.
"Prison officials should be aware that the Bible should not be censored as a dangerous item," he said. "It's something that can actually help them do their jobs, in terms of rehabilitating prisoners and bringing them back into society."