Jail Tale: South Carolina County Puts Religious Freedom Behind Bars

Officials at the Berkeley County, S.C., jail say the only book the 450 inmates may possess is a Bible with a soft cover.

My first job in Washington, D.C., was with a non-profit that served the correctional community. In 1986, a bunch of us on the staff spent the night in a new state-of-the-art jail that had just been constructed in Prince George’s County, Md. We wore jail uniforms and ate dry sandwiches for dinner. The lights snapped off at 10 p.m. sharp and came back on at 6 the next morning.

That was my only brush with the correctional system – and it was enough.

A real lock-up must be pretty grim. Aside from the possibility of violence, imagine the long hours to fill and the tedium – and now imagine being told that the only book you can read is the Bible.

That’s the situation in Berkeley County, S.C. Officials at the jail there say the only book the 450 inmates may possess is a Bible with a soft cover. Everything else is contraband.

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

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing. The matter came to the ACLU’s attention after the publishers of a publication called Prison Legal News tried to send it to inmates, only to have it returned.

Jail officials argue that they don’t have space for a library. Fair enough. No one expects them to build one for the inmates. But in this case, inmates are asking to receive material from the outside and are being denied – unless they request Bibles.

But not every inmate wants a Bible. Inmates who are not Christian might find succor from their respective holy books. Others might just want to read a popular novel. They are being denied this material on spurious grounds. This is not likely to hold up in court.

No one denies that prisons and jails present unique security concerns. Courts have recognized that. The Berkeley County Jail does not have to allow inmates access to a book titled How to Break Out of Prison. But a blanket ban on all religious literature except for Bibles is an obvious case of government preference of one faith over others. The courts probably aren’t going to let that stand – nor should they. It just isn’t right.

My advice to officials in Berkeley County is to save taxpayer money and settle this matter out of court. Craft a policy that doesn’t discriminate against other faiths. Allow inmates access to any religious and non-religious material that does not present security issues.

Religious freedom is important for all Americans – even those behind bars. Berkeley County officials have violated that right. They need to stop.