October 14, 2010

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Berkeley County Detention Center in South Carolina last week because of complaints from inmates who were not receiving magazine subscriptions. The suit was filed on behalf of Prison Legal News, a criminal justice magazine. The 17-page suit alleges the detention center failed to distribute other publications and some letters to inmates. The only book permitted, according to the lawsuit, is the Bible.

The lawsuit claims detention center official 1st Sgt. K Habersham wrote to the editor of Prison Legal News Paul Wright, with the following statement.

“Our inmates are only allowed to receive soft back bibles in the mail directly from the publisher. They are not allowed to have magazines, newspapers or any other type of books.”

In addition to the detention center’s strict ruling on outside reading material, it has also been confirmed that the Berkeley County prisoners do not have access to a library within the confines of the prison.

It is the opinion of The Tech Talk editorial staff that prisoners do not forfeit all of their rights as United States citizens when they are incarcerated. Supreme Court decisions have set this precedent and have specified that prison policies should be meant to maintain security. In the 1974 case of Procunier v. Martinez, prisoners claimed letters were being censored. The Court ruled that any restrictions to the First Amendment must be justifiable and regulations cannot stop inmate communication more than is necessary to protect governmental interest.

This precedent reveals two major flaws in the Berkeley County Detention Center’s policies. First is that of free speech. The ability to read, keep up with current events and educate oneself on legal matters is important for all citizens, prisoners included. In fact, many of those incarcerated continue to deal with the criminal justice system as they file appeals. It is only fair they are given the opportunity to inform themselves with these matters.

Secondly, this suit deals with religious freedom. According not only to the lawsuit, but also to an interview with National Public Radio, the detention center only allows paperback Bibles. The argument for the plaintiff is that this government-run detention center is limiting  access to a Christian Bible, and therefore discriminating on the basis of religion. The Supreme Court, in years past, has ruled that prisoners still have the right to freedom of religion and do not lose the right to practice their religion while behind bars.

What happens if a Muslim is put in the detention center in Berkeley County?

As of right now, he is forced to abandon reading the Quran, as they are not allowed. In many corrections facilities, faith-based programs are regarded as esteemed rehab tools during incarceration.

Though it may be hard to imagine, prisoners are still human beings with innate rights that should only be taken away in extreme and rare conditions. Even our prisoners have a right to practice whichever religion they choose and receive materials that will educate and help them with their re-entry into society.