ACLU says Georgia sheriff is illegally denying books to prisoners

John Wilcher, the sheriff of Chatham County, Georgia.

(CNN)The American Civil Liberties Union says a Georgia sheriff is violating prisoners' First Amendment rights by banning books and publications that arrive by mail or from family members.

The ACLU sent a letter to Chatham County Sheriff John T. Wilcher and R. Jonathan Hart, the county attorney, Wednesday urging the sheriff to rescind the jail's new policy that allows prisoners to only read books and magazines from the jail book cart.
"The ACLU has never before encountered a policy that so completely restricts detained persons' access to books and publications," David Faithi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a statement.
    The letter says inmates have a legal "freedom to read" and argues that the policy violates the First Amendment and federal law.
    The policy, implemented March 4, not only restricts incoming books from family, publishers and organizations, but also removes existing books from inmates. Under this policy, an inmate would only be able to read books from the jail book cart.
    In the letter, ACLU says the book selection went from millions available from outside providers to dozens that would be available through book carts. Inmates are allowed one book at a time for one-week intervals, but are allowed access to religious texts.
    Wilcher did not respond to CNN's calls for comment, but in a statement issued Thursday, the sheriff's office said: "Sheriff Wilcher immediately consulted with Chatham County's legal counsel upon receipt of the letter and is awaiting their guidance. Once this policy and the request have been thoroughly reviewed by such counsel, a statement will be made addressing the findings and course of action, if any is necessary."
    In February, when the changes were announced, the sheriff's office said they were instituted "in order to reduce the amount of combustible material in the inmate's housing areas, which can lead to the spread of fire."
    "The policy also allows the facility to further restrict the flow of contraband, which can be hidden in various publications and pose a threat to the inmates, as well as the officers," the office said.
    CNN has also reached out to the office of the County Attorney for comment.

    Washington state, Pennsylvania took similar actions

    Organizations that advocate for civil liberties for inmates, including the ACLU, have long noted the benefits that books have for inmates for rehabilitation.
    The Chatham County ban is similar to policies found in jails correctional facilities around the country -- some which have been reversed.
    Just this week, the Washington state Department of Corrections reversed its policy that banned used books based on security concerns for contraband.
    Despite the corrections department's longstanding relationship with nonprofit organization Books to Prisoners, the ban rolled out silently. Jeremy Barclay, engagement and outreach director for the corrections department, told CNN that the department "acknowledges that it was an oversight on this issue" and hopes to restore partnerships with organizations to supply books to prisoners.
    In September 2018, the Pennsylvania said it would transition to e-books in prisons and streamline access to books and magazines. In November, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections updated its policy to reintroduce donated books from publishers and organizations.
      "This policy update allows inmates to have direct contact with book donation organizations through a security processing center and ensures that publications will not be used as a path by which drugs are introduced into our facilities," Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in the statement.
      Prisoners' rights to read, write, speak, practice their religion, and communicate with the outside world are often curtailed far beyond what is necessary for institutional security," ACLU says on its website.