February 16, 2019 10:03:34 PM
JACKSON -- A south Mississippi county has agreed to allow inmates to receive non-religious reading materials, ending a lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett dismissed the case Friday, after Forrest County and the Human Rights Defense Center reached a settlement earlier this month.
Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee agrees prisoners can receive books and publications from the center and other recognized distributors. The center is a prisoners' rights groups and also puts out Prison Legal News and other publications.
McGee agrees that he will only turn away publications only if they are "inconsistent with the legitimate penological interests of the jail." McGee also agrees that if the jail refuses to deliver something, he will let the sender appeal.
The center sued McGee in October, saying that he only allowed prisoners to read Bibles and Christian religious tracts and that at least 77 pieces of mail addressed to inmates had been returned to the center. Sabarish Neelakanta, the center's general counsel and litigation director, said McGee's acts were unconstitutional because they violated the center's free speech rights to communicate with inmates and violated the First Amendment's prohibition on state establishment of religion.
"They were picking religious texts over secular texts," Neelakanta said.
The center also alleged the denials without an appeal violated its due process rights.
Neelakanta said McGee and Forrest County officials quickly agreed to change their practices.
"Forrest County, to their credit, and Sheriff McGee, to his credit, immediately agreed to remedy the situation," he said. "This is an important part of what we do, to make sure prisoners have access to books and letters."
The Mississippi Department of Corrections recently settled a lawsuit allowing a nonprofit group Big House Books to mail free books to prisoners. The group sued after South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville began returning books, saying inmates were only allowed to directly receive religious books. The state now allows for publications to be mailed directly to inmates from any recognized publisher, distributor or retailer, similar to the policy reached in the Forrest County settlement.
Local lawyer Rob McDuff said the Mississippi Center for Justice, which helped represent the Human Rights Defense Center, is looking for other local jails in the state where sheriffs may be restricting what inmates can read.
"The Mississippi Center for Justice is interested in helping prisoners in any jail who are burdened by these types of unreasonable restrictions on reading material," McDuff said.
It's unclear whether the plaintiffs collected legal fees from the county. Court records don't reflect such an award, and lawyer McDuff didn't immediately answer a question about whether lawyers for the plaintiffs were paid by the county.
Will Allen, a lawyer defending Forrest County, didn't immediately return an email and a phone call seeking comment Friday.
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