Last week the ACLU and several other groups that defend religious freedom sent a letter (PDF) to Superintendent Joseph Higgs of Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, Virginia, complaining about censorship that had reduced an inmate's letters from his mother to "something resembling Swiss cheese" by excising biblical quotations:
Anna Williams…a devout Christian, wanted to support her son spiritually during his confinement at the Jail by sending him religious language, including passages from the Bible.
Rather than delivering these letters to Ms. Williams' son, the Jail expurgated the religious material, citing variously as the reason for censorship "Internet Pages" and "Religious Material from Home."…Using scissors or a hobby knife, Jail officials literally cut the religious portions out of Ms. Williams' letters and delivered only the snippets that did not quote the Bible….All Ms. Williams' son received of a three-page letter was the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter, and the closing, "Love, Mom."…
The Jail also refused to deliver a letter entitled Coping With Loneliness, a Christian guide that Ms. Williams hoped would help her son confront his isolation at the Jail.
It is astonishing that such censorship of the Bible and other religious material could occur in an American jail in the Twenty-First Century.
The ACLU letter notes that "jails may limit detainees' right to free speech and free exercise [of religion] only through restrictions 'reasonably related to legitimate penological interests,' such as security." It warns Higgs that his jail's censorship policy violates the First Amendment rights of both Ms. Williams and her son as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which says rules that impose a substantial burden on a prisoner's religious freedom are permitted only when they are the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The Washington Post reports that Higgs "said that he has launched an internal investigation after receiving calls from the media but that he could not comment while the investigation is being conducted."
John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, which is representing Anna Williams, tells OneNewsNow such illegal censorship is not limited to this particular jail:
Various Christian organizations are trying to give Bibles to prisoners…and prisons and local jails are actually prohibiting [that], saying such materials could be dangerous—and they're actually stopping them. So this is a nationwide thing that we're seeing, and [it's] one reason why we're trying to get involved in this case and stop it and nip it in the bud.