ACLU and Other Religious Rights Groups Sought to End Censorship

Stafford, VA -- Under pressure from six different religious rights organizations, officials at the Rappahannock Regional Jail have agreed to end their illegal practice of censoring religious material sent to detainees.
In early July, the ACLU, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, The Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter to jail officials after learning from Anna Williams that jail employees had systematically removed religious passages from letters and other materials she had sent her incarcerated son. The letter said that the practice was a violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, both of which protect freedom of religion in jails and prisons.
Upon receiving the letter, prison officials immediately announced that they would launch an investigation into the jail’s practices and policies concerning religious materials. Later, a response letter from jail Superintendent Joseph Higgs indicated that inmates will be allowed to receive and keep religions materials sent from the outside so long as they do not contain anything that is pornographic or a threat to jail security.
“We are pleased that jail officials acted so swiftly to correct this injustice,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “When you go to jail you lose a lot of rights, but the courts and Congress have made it clear that incarcerated persons still have the right to practice their religion so long as there is no risk to security. It is hard to imagine anyone arguing that security is threatened when inmates possess Bible passages.”
Ms. Williams contacted the ACLU after discovering that the prison was literally cutting religious messages from letters she sent to her son. One three-page letter, for example, was reduced to nothing more than the salutation, the first paragraph of the letter and the closing, “Love, Mom” after jail officials cut the Bible passages.
Jail officials had also 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 have variously cited prohibitions on “Internet pages” and “religious material sent from home” as reasons for the censorship.

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022

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