AP NEWS

ACLU says Georgia sheriff illegally banning books from jail

April 10, 2019

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that a Georgia sheriff is violating the rights of jail inmates by prohibiting them from receiving outside books and magazines.

The ACLU sent a letter to Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher urging him to rescind a new policy that says inmates at the county jail in Savannah can no longer receive books or magazines by mail or from visitors. The policy restricts inmates to selecting reading materials from book carts managed by jail staff.

“We have never before encountered a policy that so completely restricts detained persons’ access to books and publications,” said the letter signed by David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, and attorneys from the ACLU of Georgia.

The letter dated Wednesday noted the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment grants inmates not only freedom of speech but also the “freedom to read.”

The ACLU’s letter asked the sheriff for a response by April 30. Attached were copies of the book policy and a notice alerting inmates that the changes were taking effect March 3.

“I think I’m well within the scope of the law,” Wilcher said in a phone interview. “If I’m not, then I’ll change my policy.”

The sheriff said inmates are able to choose books and magazines divided among eight carts, one for each of the jail’s housing wings. Inmates also have access to copies of the Bible, the Quran and other religious texts through the jail’s chaplains, he said.

The sheriff declined to discuss the book policy further, saying he’s still awaiting legal advice from county attorneys.

R. Jonathan Hart, the county attorney, did not immediately return a phone message.

The Chatham County jail housed an average of 1,630 inmates per day in 2016, according to a report on jail operations on the sheriff’s website.