- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

RICHMOND | Prisoner and free-speech advocates are demanding a written guarantee that inmates at a Virginia jail can receive letters containing religious material after a prisoner said his mail was censored.

The American Civil Liberties Union, its Virginia chapter and several other civil, religious and prisoner rights organizations sent a letter Thursday to Rappahannock Regional Jail Superintendent Joseph Higgs Jr. requesting that the issue be resolved without litigation.

Anna Williams, whose son was detained at the jail for several months, said officials cut out entire sections of several letters that she sent to her son that contained Bible verses or religious material. She said the jail cited prohibitions on Internet material and religious material sent from home.

The groups cited a three-page typed letter in which the only thing left when jail officials gave it to her son was the salutation, a paragraph and the closing, “Love, Mom.”

“Obviously for security issues the right to practice religion while incarcerated is a balancing act to some extent, but that can’t possibly apply to a mother sending religious passages to her son,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Mr. Higgs said that the letter prompted him to initiate an internal investigation. Jail officials referred questions to attorney Bill Hefty, who said only that he was reviewing the letter and would respond to the groups.

The groups declined to name Miss Williams’ son, who has been transferred to another lockup, or provide details about why he was jailed.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that inmates have the right to practice religion as long as it doesn’t interfere with other obligations or create a security risk.

Prisons and jails also have the right to censor mail, but Mr. Willis said removing material just because it is religious violates the inmate’s and the sender’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The groups say it also violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which says agencies cannot impose a substantial burden on a prisoner’s religious exercise unless it is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

“The guiding principle here is that even if you’re incarcerated you still have freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” Mr. Willis said. “Obviously it’s not as complete as if you were not incarcerated, but those rights still exist and a prison can only remove them when it can show a compelling reason to do so.”

The groups asked that the jail guarantee in writing that it would no longer censor biblical passages from letters and revise the policy so that letters are no longer censored because they contain religious material.

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