Nation & World

Jail Bible battle may hinge on staples

MONCKS CORNER -- At the Berkeley County jail, God's Word is the only one allowed.

Three lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department arrived at the jail Monday to investigate a complaint that inmates have been denied reading material other than the Bible.

While the attorneys toured the Hill-Finklea Detention Center, specifically seeking out non-Christian inmates with no interest in the paperback Bibles allowed inside, another group of visitors started its work in one of the jail's halls. County officials hired four Charleston School of Law students and a University of South Carolina student to comb through 40,500 files to show that inmates used staples to cause harm in or damage the jail.

The jail says that's why it banned the Prison Legal News -- which the ACLU wants reinstated -- because its binding is stapled. The ACLU is challenging the staple assertion, and the law students are investigating the jail's claims, as ordered by a federal judge.

Monday's dramatic inquiries showed the level of interest in the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit against the jail, Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt and other officials. The suit alleges the Bible-only policy is unconstitutional.

DeWitt noted that, unlike prisoners serving sentences, most county jail inmates only spend a day or two at the jail before trial. But he said he would work with the Justice Department.

"However, we do not have federal funding and we simply cannot and will not make our jail a Marriott," DeWitt added.

The jail continues operating well over capacity, sometimes at triple its intended population of 154. A $10 million expansion originally scheduled to come online more than a year ago still awaits state approval and necessary funding.

The ACLU's lawsuit came about after the jail turned away mail, including the Prison Legal News. Sandy Senn, an attorney representing the jail, walked through the detention center Monday showing the damage that staples binding the publication can cause.

Inmates can jam staples in their toilets' flushing mechanisms and flood their cells. They can use them to destroy $900 locks and to manipulate wiring. And they can straighten them into needles for makeshift tattoo guns.

Senn and a sheriff's sergeant showed some of those primitive instruments: a toothbrush and a pen, each with a staple sticking out of the base for tattooing, and a more sophisticated version with a small ink well.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, called the staple argument "an after-the-fact rationale" and noted that the jail never mentioned staples in its original reason for rejecting Prison Legal News.

"It's unfortunate that the county is continuing to spend thousands of dollars to defend an indefensible policy," Fathi said.

He also noted that the jail still sold inmates legal pads that contained staples, even three months after the lawsuit's filing.

Senn said jail officials, upon discovering the staples inside the pads, switched to a glue-only brand.

A federal judge ordered that either jail officials or the ACLU review three years of inmate files to determine if staples posed problems. Senn showed the walk-in file room filled with the more than 40,500 manila folders that five students will spend the next two weeks perusing at a cost of $20 an hour.

Senn pointed out that the withheld mail, including Prison Legal News, primarily shows up at the jail unsolicited. She also said that jail officials met with local mosque leaders to ensure access to the Koran in addition to the Bible.

"We acknowledge that our written policy have been behind the times. ... But, in practice, we have been allowing a lot of religious reading materials in for a very long time," Senn said.

The case heads to court next month, when a judge will hear the ACLU's case for a temporary injunction that would require that the jail to accept Prison Legal News and other publications.