In response to a letter sent last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, a Virginia jail has agreed to change its policies regarding prison mail to ensure that biblical passages and other religious material sent to prisoners are no longer censored. The ACLU’s letter complained that religious material sent to detainees at the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, VA was being withheld by jail officials.
“The censorship of religious materials sent to prisoners violates both the rights of detainees to practice their religion freely while incarcerated as well as the free speech rights of those wanting to communicate with prisoners,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project and author of the letter. “We are pleased that jail officials have indicated a commitment to upholding these important constitutional values.”
According to a letter sent to the ACLU by Joseph Higgs, Jr., the jail’s superintendent, the jail has previously had a policy of banning mail sent to prisoners that includes any material printed from the Internet. The policy was adopted, according to the letter, to cut down on large amounts of material being printed from the Internet, which Higgs claims puts an undue burden on jail staff and creates security and safety risks.
Under the new policy adopted by jail officials, prisoners will be allowed to receive material copied from the Internet as long as it can be neatly stored within the storage bunks in their cells. Higgs assured the ACLU in his letter that biblical passages will not be censored from letters written to prisoners and that letters will not be censored merely because they contain religious material.
The ACLU sent its letter to the jail last month after receiving a complaint from Anna Williams, whose son was detained at Rappahannock beginning in June of 2008 until his transfer earlier this year. Williams wanted to send her son religious material, including passages from the Bible, to support him spiritually during his confinement. But rather than deliver Williams’ letters to her son in full, jail officials removed any and all religious material, destroying the religious messages Williams sought to convey to her son. For example, after jail officials excised biblical passages, a three-page letter sent by Williams to her son was reduced to nothing more than the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter and the closing, “Love, Mom.”
Jail officials banned additional material from other letters Williams attempted to send her son, including passages from the Book of Proverbs, the Book of James, the Book of Matthew and an article that contained Christian perspectives on confronting isolation while in jail.
“Jail officials should be commended for promptly expressing their commitment to abiding by the mandates of the U.S. Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “People do not lose their right to religious worship simply because they are incarcerated.”
The ACLU’s letter also asked jail officials to revise the jail’s inmate mail policy to state that letters will not be censored merely because they contain material printed from the Internet or copied from the Internet and inserted into a letter using a word processor’s “cut and paste” feature.
“Our nation’s constitutional values hold that people should not be denied access to religious materials simply because they are in jail or prison,” said Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director for the ACLU of Virginia. “No government officials should ever be allowed to interfere with the right of all Americans to freely practice the religion of their choice, or no religion at all.”
Other signatories to the ACLU’s letter were the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.