Groups decry removal of Bible verses from letters to inmate

Thursday, July 16, 2009

RICHMOND, Va. — Prisoner and free-speech advocates are demanding a written guarantee that inmates at a Virginia jail can receive letters containing religious material after a prisoner said his mail was censored.

The American Civil Liberties Union, its Virginia chapter and several other civil, religious- and prisoner-rights organizations sent a letter July 9 to Rappahannock Regional Jail Superintendent Joseph Higgs Jr. requesting that the issue be resolved without litigation.

Anna Williams, whose son was detained at the jail for several months, said officials cut out entire sections of several letters she sent to her son that contained Bible verses or religious material. She said the jail cited prohibitions on Internet material and religious material sent from home.

The groups cited a three-page typed letter from Williams where the only thing left when jail officials gave it to her son was the salutation, a paragraph and the closing, “Love, Mom.”

“Obviously for security issues the right to practice religion while incarcerated is a balancing act to some extent, but that can't possibly apply to a mother sending religious passages to her son,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Higgs said in a written statement that the letter prompted him to initiate an internal investigation.

The groups have declined to name Williams' son, who has been transferred to another lockup, or provide details about why he was jailed.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said prison rules that impact prisoners’ constitutional rights — including freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion — must be rationally related to legitimate penological concerns, such as prison safety or rehabilitation.

Prisoners have greater religious-liberty rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 — RLUIPA — than under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. Under RLUIPA, prison officials may not impose a substantial burden on an inmate’s religious-freedom rights unless they have a compelling interest (such as security) that is advanced in the least-restrictive way.

Prisons and jails also have the right to censor mail, but Willis said removing material just because it is religious violates the inmate's and the sender's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The groups also contend the current prison practice of censoring religious passages violates RLUIPA.

“The guiding principle here is that even if you're incarcerated you still have freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” Willis said. “Obviously it's not as complete as if you were not incarcerated, but those rights still exist and a prison can only remove them when it can show a compelling reason to do so.”

The groups asked the jail to guarantee in writing that it would no longer censor biblical passages from letters and revise the policy so letters are no longer censored because they contain religious material.

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