Civil rights and religious freedom groups are criticizing the Rappahannock Regional Jail in northern Virginia, charging that the jail illegally censored the letters a Christian mother sent to her jailed son for being “too religious.” Jail authorities cut out so many Bible passages that her letters resembled “Swiss cheese,” the groups said.
The letters of inmate mother Anna Williams were stamped for censorship with the words “Religious Material from Home,” a press release from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty reports. On at least one occasion, all that was left of a three-page letter was its salutation, its first paragraph, and its signature “Love, Mom.”
A July 9 letter from civil and religious liberty groups to the jail’s superintendent, Joseph Higgs, Jr., protested the alleged censorship.
“Ms. Williams, a devout Christian, wanted to support her son spiritually during his confinement at the Jail by sending him religious language, including passages from the Bible,” the letter reports.
“Rather than delivering these letters to Ms. Williams’ son, the Jail expurgated the religious material, citing variously as the reason for censorship ‘Internet Pages’ and ‘Religious Material from Home.’
“Such censorship destroyed the religious messages Ms. Williams sought to convey to her son and reduced her letters to something resembling Swiss cheese. Using scissors or a hobby knife, Jail officials literally cut the religious portions out of Ms. Williams’ letters and delivered only the snippets that did not quote the Bible.”
Sources for the censored passages included the Book of Proverbs, the Book of James and the Book of Matthew. Jail officials also refused to deliver a Christian article titled “Coping with Loneliness.”
The censored portions of the letters were placed in the “personal property” of Williams’ son and were not given to him until he was transferred out of the jail.
“Even the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had ready access to Scripture while incarcerated in a Siberian prison camp in tsarist Russia,” the letter to jail officials said.
The letter to the superintendent was signed by officials from the Becket Fund, the Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and several local and national American Civil Liberties Union officials.
The letter, expressing hope that the issue could be resolved “without resort to litigation,” requested revisions to jail policy and written guarantees that Biblical passages in letters to detainees would not be censored.
Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director at the Becket Fund, was a signatory to the letter.
“The citizens of Rappahannock County should be alarmed that their government has decided to join North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in treating the Bible as dangerous contraband,” he said in a statement.
“Although the Bible says, ‘the truth shall set you free,’ prison authorities shouldn't treat the Bible as a security risk,” he added. “In censoring this mother's letters, the prison violated the First Amendment rights of both the prisoner and his mother.”
Kristina A. Arriaga, communications director with the Becket Fund, in a Friday e-mail told CNA that the jail superintendent has said he will start an investigation.
Prison authorities may legitimately censor writings that affect prison security, but U.S. courts have ruled that inmates may have access to religious materials.