A Virginia jail has agreed to change its policies regarding prison mail after the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter in protest of the censoring of biblical passages and other religious material that were being sent to prisoners.
"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 the ACLU, the letter to officials at the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford,Va., was prompted by a complaint brought to the ACLU by Anna Williams, a devout Christian 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 reportedly removed any and all religious material, destroying the religious messages Williams sought to convey to her son.
In one incident, jail officials reduced a three-page letter sent by Williams to her son to nothing more than the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter and the closing, "Love, Mom," after excising biblical passages.
"It is essential that jail officials abide by the law and the requirements of the U.S. Constitution," argued 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."
In response to the jail officials’ actions, the ACLU, backed by groups including Prison Fellowship and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sent a letter last month demanding that officials guarantee in writing that the jail will no longer censor biblical passages from letters written to detainees and that it will revise its written inmate mail policy to state that letters will not be censored simply because they contain religious material.
In his reply, Joseph Higgs, Jr., Rappahannock’s superintendent, explained that what the jail’s policy actually bans is mail sent to prisoners that includes material of any type that is 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.
Still, after receiving ACLU’s letter, jail officials reportedly adopted a new policy that will allow prisoners to receive material copied from the Internet as long as it can be neatly stored within the storage bunks in their cells.
Higgs further 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.
In comments Monday, ACLU’s Mach “commended” jail officials for “promptly expressing their commitment to abiding by the mandates of the U.S. Constitution.”
"Our nation's constitutional values hold that people should not be denied access to religious materials simply because they are in jail or prison," added 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."
Signatories to the ACLU's July 9 letter, among others, included 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.