Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA -- The American Civil Liberties Union today asked a judge to block the Berkeley County jail's rules over what items inmates may receive while the group challenges a policy barring inmates from any reading materials other than the Bible.

In the motion, filed in federal court in Charleston, attorneys for the ACLU asked a federal judge to order Hill-Finklea Detention Center officials to give inmates mail that includes the Prison Legal News, a monthly newsletter published by the Human Rights Defense Center.

Inmates have been barred from reading the monthly legal journal and the ACLU in October sued the jail on the publication's behalf, arguing that officials at the jail in Moncks Corner are violating the magazine's and inmates' constitutional rights.

Since 2008, the journal's publishers have tried to send magazines, letters and self-help books about prison life to several inmates at the jail, according to the ACLU. Some were sent back, and in July a jail official wrote an e-mail to the publishers referencing the jail's policy.

"Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft-back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher," First Sergeant K. Habersham said in the email. "They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers, or any other type of books."

In October, jail officials told The Associated Press the jail didn't have a library and that the only reading material its roughly 450 inmates were allowed to have were paperback Bibles.

Part of the jail's justification for banning the law journal has included an argument that the publication contains staples, which officials have said could pose a security risk. In its motion, the ACLU points out that legal pads with staples in them are available for inmates to purchase at the jail's commissary.

Earlier this week, a federal judge allowed the U.S. government to participate in the lawsuit, granting U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles' request to enter the lawsuit on the side of the ACLU. Nettles had argued that the government thought it was necessary to intervene because the jail's policies also prohibited inmates from receiving educational materials, including those required by a correspondence education course.

Sandy Senn, an attorney for the jail, said today she would contest the motion and planned to file affidavits from contractors who have been paid by Berkeley County in the past to fix damage to jail property caused by staples.

Senn has previously said that, since June 2009, Berkeley County inmates have been allowed to receive any type of religious materials -- including vampire and witchcraft texts -- as long as the books are soft-sided and meet other physical requirements, such as the absence of staples.

David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, implored the judge to grant his group's motion.

"This is nothing more than an excuse by jail officials to ban books and magazines for no good reason," Shapiro said. "There is no justification for denying detainees access to periodicals and in the process cutting them off from the outside world."

In addition to unspecified punitive damages, the lawsuit also asks a federal judge to order the Bible-only policy halted and to let a jury hear the case. Jury selection is scheduled for January.