Virginia Jail Ends Censorship of Religious Material After ACLU Letter

For Immediate Release

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Will Matthews, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org

Virginia Jail Ends Censorship of Religious Material After ACLU Letter

STAFFORD, Va. - In response to a letter sent last month by the American Civil Liberties
Union, a Virginia jail has agreed to change its policies regarding
prison mail to ensure that biblical passages and other religious
material sent to prisoners are no longer censored. The ACLU's letter
complained that religious material sent to detainees at the
Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, VA was being withheld by jail
officials.

"The censorship of religious
materials sent to prisoners violates both the rights of detainees to
practice their religion freely while incarcerated as well as the free
speech rights of those wanting to communicate with prisoners," said
David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project and
author of the letter. "We are pleased that jail officials have
indicated a commitment to upholding these important constitutional
values."

According to a letter sent to the
ACLU by Joseph Higgs, Jr., the jail's superintendent, the jail has
previously had a policy of banning mail sent to prisoners that includes
any material printed from the Internet. The policy was adopted,
according to the letter, to cut down on large amounts of material being
printed from the Internet, which Higgs claims puts an undue burden on
jail staff and creates security and safety risks.

Under the new policy adopted by jail
officials, prisoners will be allowed to receive material copied from
the Internet as long as it can be neatly stored within the storage
bunks in their cells. Higgs assured the ACLU in his letter that
biblical passages will not be censored from letters written to
prisoners and that letters will not be censored merely because they
contain religious material. 

The ACLU sent its letter to the jail
last month after receiving a complaint from Anna Williams, whose son
was detained at Rappahannock beginning in June of 2008 until his
transfer earlier this year. Williams wanted to send her son religious
material, including passages from the Bible, to support him spiritually
during his confinement. But rather than deliver Williams' letters to
her son in full, jail officials removed any and all religious material,
destroying the religious messages Williams sought to convey to her son.
For example, after jail officials excised biblical passages, a
three-page letter sent by Williams to her son was reduced to nothing
more than the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter and the
closing, "Love, Mom."

Jail officials banned additional
material from other letters Williams attempted to send her son,
including passages from the Book of Proverbs, the Book of James, the
Book of Matthew and an article that contained Christian perspectives on
confronting isolation while in jail.

"Jail officials should be commended
for promptly expressing their commitment to abiding by the mandates of
the U.S. Constitution," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for
the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "People do not lose
their right to religious worship simply because they are incarcerated."

The ACLU's letter also asked jail
officials to revise the jail's inmate mail policy to state that letters
will not be censored merely because they contain material printed from
the Internet or copied from the Internet and inserted into a letter
using a word processor's "cut and paste" feature.

"Our nation's constitutional values
hold that people should not be denied access to religious materials
simply because they are in jail or prison," said Rebecca Glenberg,
Legal Director for the ACLU of Virginia. "No government officials
should ever be allowed to interfere with the right of all Americans to
freely practice the religion of their choice, or no religion at all."

Other signatories to the ACLU's
letter were the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the
Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship, the Friends Committee on
National Legislation and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

A copy of the letter sent by the Rappahannock Regional Jail to the ACLU is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/40672res20090804.html

A copy of the ACLU's letter is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/40257res20090709.html

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief at: www.aclu.org/religion

Additional information about the ACLU of Virginia is available online at: www.acluva.org

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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