ACLU lawsuit: Howard Co. jail policy limiting books sent to inmates challenged as censorship

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has filed a lawsuit against the Howard County Jail, claiming its policy of limiting what books incarcerated individuals can be sent is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday on behalf of not-for-profit group Unshackled Hearts Inc., alleges the jail’s policy violates the First Amendment and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“Our aim is to provide support and mentorship that matches each inmate’s specific needs, education, and place in life. Part of this process is supplying individualized reading material, which aids the rehabilitation process by stimulating emotional, spiritual, and mental growth,” Karen Ely, director of Unshackled Hearts, said via the ACLU of Indiana in a news release. “Severely restricting access to quality books is counterproductive to nearly every objective correctional institutions should endeavor to achieve.”

Unshackled Hearts is a not-for-profit prison ministry that tries to help with rehabilitation by offering spiritual counseling and by providing reading materials to inmates “that match their needs and interests,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit alleges that at the beginning of 2023, the Howard County Jail banned the delivery of books completely. Unshackled Hearts raised concerns and, in response, the jail amended its policy to allow a limited number of books to be sent directly from publishers, but not from distributors like Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The complaint points to two additional features of the jail’s policy: a two-book limit per inmate per month, and a “prior-permission rule” that says a book will be sent back to the publisher if it is received without prior permission.

“Unshackled Hearts acknowledges that the Jail has offered it the ability to donate books that will then be placed on book carts inside the Jail,” the complaint says. “While Unshackled Hearts is certainly willing to assist the Jail in growing its library, this is not remotely a suitable alternative to allowing Unshackled Hearts to have books sent into the Jail directly from Amazon or another established distributor to be received by a specific inmate: the services that it offers to incarcerated persons are personal to the persons who have contacted Unshackled Hearts, and Unshackled Hearts certainly cannot be assured that a book placed on a book cart inside the Jail will reach its intended recipient. This is particularly so given that it is Unshackled Hearts’s (sic) understanding that each of the Jail’s seven housing units has its own book cart, such that a book placed on a book cart would likely not even be on the same unit as its intended recipient.

“… As a result of the Jail’s enforcement of the Current Book Policy,” the complaint continues, “Unshackled Hearts is suffering irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at all.”

The lawsuit — Unshackled Hearts, Inc. v. Howard County Sheriff, in his official capacity, et al., 1:23-cv-01079 — has been filed with the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Indiana.

“Systematically denying incarcerated Hoosiers’ access to books has been found to violate the U.S. Constitution,” Gavin M. Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Indiana, said in a news release. “The policy in place at Howard County Jail is nothing short of censorship, and there is no justification for shutting people off from the outside world in such a draconian way.”

The complaint is requesting declaratory judgment that the defendants violated the plaintiff’s rights, plus a preliminary injunction prohibiting the enforcement of the challenged portions of the policy and requiring the defendants to allow Unshackled Hearts “to have books sent directly from Amazon or another established distributor to incarcerated individuals in the Howard County Jail, subject to the ability of jail staff to review these materials for any content that might threaten the safety or security of the facility.”

Howard County attorney Alan Wilson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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