All books except the Bible, 'Christian publications' banned at Forrest Co. jail, lawsuit says
Lici Beveridge, Hattiesburg American
Published 11:19 a.m. CT Oct. 25, 2018
Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee is one of several defendants named in a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Human Rights Defense Center and Mississippi Center for Justice.
Also named in the suit is Forrest County and some of the jail's staff.
The lawsuit contends inmates are "allowed to read only the Bible and sometimes other Christian publications.”
HRDC, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, alleges the jail also banned publications and mail the organization has sent to inmates. The books and other publications mailed to the jail were returned undelivered by jail officials.
he lawsuit says the jail's policies and practices unreasonably censor books and publications in violation of the First Amendment’s free speech clause, limit reading material on religious grounds in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and fail to provide HRDC with notice of the censorship or an opportunity to appeal in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
Attorneys working with the HRDC in Mississippi say in the lawsuit the organization is seeking a permanent injunction preventing the jail from continuing its alleged ban on reading materials, and unspecified nominal, compensatory and punitive damages.
"We want to see this policy change so that prisoners — people who are in there, people who are awaiting trial, people who are waiting for the disposition of their cases — can read books and other publications beyond the Bible and other Christian publications, which apparently is the only thing the prisoners are allowed to read there in the jail," attorney Rob McDuff said.
McDuff is representing HRDC in the lawsuit.
"It's important for everybody, but it's particularly important for people who are in jail to have access to educational materials, novels and history books," McDuff said. "When people are locked up in jail, they have a lot of time on their hands. You would think jail administrators and staff would want prisoners to be doing something constructive — including reading books."
Attempts to reach Forrest County Board of Supervisors Attorney David Miller for comment and to clarify what is the jail's policy were unsuccessful.
Before filing the lawsuit, HRDC mailed dozens of publications to prisoners at Forrest County Jail, beginning in August.
HRDC said in a news release that the jail censored at least 77 pieces of mail sent by the organization between August and October, including 19 books, 15 court rulings and 29 issues of Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. Those mailings were sent back to HRDC marked “Return to Sender.”
The jail did not provide HRDC with notice of the censorship, nor provide an opportunity to appeal or challenge the mail rejections.
"It's kind of outrageous that you have these jails that ban books and magazines," said HRDC Executive Director Paul Wright.
He said there are many other jails and prisons like Forrest County Jail that limit or ban reading materials.
"We've unfortunately been dealing with these publication bans for a long time," Wright said. "Whether prisoners have been convicted or if they are awaiting trial, and are therefore innocent until proven guilty, limiting their reading options to religious materials is an egregious abuse of government power that has no legitimate purpose."
In April, a similar lawsuit was filed by Big House Books against the Mississippi Department of Corrections and the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville, MDOC Commissioner Pelecia Hall and SMCI Superintendent Jacquelyn Banks.
The Big House lawsuit, also assisted by the Mississippi Center for Justice, alleges the prison only allows inmates to receive books if they "have been purchased or if the books are religious," excluding "novels, history books, GED preparation handbooks or any other secular books."
By doing so, MDOC is violating the "First and Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution," the lawsuit claims.
"Religious books certainly are important inside a prison, but so are secular books," Beth Orlansky, MCJ advocacy director, said in a release. "With this lawsuit, we seek simply to restore the prior practice at the prison so that prisoners can receive books in the mail whether paid or free, whether religious or secular."
The prison began returning packages of books sent to individual inmates by Big House Books in 2017. Prison officials reportedly told Big House Books they could send religious books instead.