Jail Bible debate: Students investigate staples threat, U.S. Justice lawyers visit
MONCKS CORNER -- At the Berkeley County jail, God's Word is the only one allowed.
In October 2010 we asked: Should prisoners be able to read whatever they want?
Yes 91% 4385 votes
No 5% 262 votes
It depends on the crime. 2% 126 votes
Three lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department arrived at the jail Monday morning to investigate a complaint that inmates have been denied reading material other than the Bible.
While the attorneys toured the Hill-Finklea Detention Center, specifically seeking out non-Christian inmates with no interest in the paperback Bibles allowed inside, another group of visitors started their work in one of the jail's hallways. County officials hired four Charleston School of Law students and a University of South Carolina student to comb through 40,500 files to show that inmates used staples to cause harm in or damage the jail.
Monday's dramatic inquiries showed the level of interest in the American
Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit against the jail, Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt and other officials, a case that calls the Bible-only policy unconstitutional.
DeWitt noted that, unlike prisoners serving sentences, most county jail inmates only spend a day or two at the jail before trial. But he said he would work with the Justice Department.
"However, we do not have federal funding and we simply cannot and will not make our jail a Marriott," DeWitt added.
In fact, the jail continues operating well over capacity, sometimes at triple its intended population of 154. A sparkling $10 million expansion originally scheduled to come online more than a year ago still awaits state approval and necessary funding.
The ACLU's lawsuit came about after the jail turned away mail, including the Prison Legal News. Sandy Senn, an attorney representing the jail in the lawsuit, walked through the detention center Monday showing the damage that staples binding the publication can cause.
Inmates can jam staples in their toilets' flushing mechanisms and flood out their cells. They can use them to destroy $900 locks and to manipulate wiring. And they can straighten them into needles for makeshift tattoo guns.
Senn and a sheriff's sergeant showed some of those primitive instruments: A toothbrush and a pen, each with a staple sticking out of the base for tattooing, and more sophisticated version with a small ink well.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, called the staple argument "an after-the-fact rationale" and noted that the jail never mentioned staples in its original reason for rejecting Prison Legal News.
"It's unfortunate that the county is continuing to spend thousands of dollars to defend an indefensible policy," Fathi said.
He also noted that the jail still sold inmates legal pads which contained staples, even three months after the lawsuit's filing. Senn said jail officials, upon discovering the staples inside the pads, switched to a glue-only brand.
A federal judge ordered that either jail officials or the ACLU review three years of inmate files to determine if staples posed problems. Senn showed the walk-in file room filled with the more than 40,500 manila folders that five students will spend the next two weeks perusing at a cost of $20 per hour.
Senn pointed out that the withheld mail, including Prison Legal News, primarily shows up at the jail unsolicited. She also said that jail officials met with local mosque leaders to ensure access to the Koran in addition to the Bible.
"We acknowledge that our written policy has been behind the times. ... But, in practice, we have been allowing a lot of religious reading materials in for a very long time," Senn said.
The case heads to court next month, when a judge will hear the ACLU's case for a temporary injunction which would require that the jail accept Prison Legal News and other publications.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.