ACLU of Georgia

Letter to Chatham County Sheriff Chatham County Sheriff to Rescind Policy Banning Books, Publications in the Jail

On April 10, 2019, the ACLU of Georgia and the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project sent a letter to Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher urging him to rescind a new policy that bans virtually all books and publications from the Chatham County Jail.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment encompasses the right of people to receive books and publications in jail. As one federal appeals court has recognized, “Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read.”

The Chatham County Jail policy allowed detainees access only to the few books currently on the Jail’s book cart. As a result, the policy completely eliminated access to the millions of books and publications available through bookstores, publishers, and vendors, now and in the future. 

“The ACLU has never before encountered a policy that so completely restricts detained persons’ access to books and publications,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.  

Chatham County’s policy also violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that protects the religious freedom of people detained in jails and prisons. Specifically, federal courts have found that institutions like the Chatham County Jail violate RLUIPA when its policies limit access to religious books and publications.

 

“The Supreme Court of the United States has established that people who are detained have the First Amendment right to read a wide range of books and literature,” said Kosha Tucker, staff attorney of the ACLU of Georgia. 

The county revised its policy. However, the sheriff’s office still limits possession to just four books, magazines, or newspapers at a time.

In its letter dated June 6, 2019, the ACLU stated that it found the numerical limit to be arbitrary and expressed concern over the availability of newspapers as well as the vagueness of what’s defined as sexually explicit.

 

“The new policy has a blanket ban on ‘sexually explicit material’ and fails to offer any sort of defining principals or guidance of what that means. So, it’s impermissibly vague, and over-broad,” said Tucker.

“Depriving people in jail of opportunities to read and limiting their ability to do so is not only fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment, but also with the rehabilitative ideal. Reading and staying in touch with the outside world are among the few ways individuals can occupy their time in positive and self-directed ways at virtually no cost to the Sheriff’s Department,” Tucker continued.