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Benton Co. jail book ban violates inmates’ rights, ACLU says

by Tracy Neal | January 29, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.
A view of a cell block at the Benton County Jail on Thursday July 30, 2015 in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF)

BENTONVILLE — The ACLU of Arkansas wants the Benton County Sheriff’s Office to restore access to reading material at the county jail, claiming a book ban violates inmates’ First Amendment rights.

The Sheriff’s Office removed almost all reading material from the jail last year because some inmates were damaging and destroying the books, said Lt. Shannon Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the department.

Some inmates were using paper from the books to cover vents, which can lead to heating and air-conditioning problems in the jail, Jenkins said. Some inmates also stuffed the paper in doors or in toilets, causing their cells to flood, she said.

The ACLU issued a news release Wednesday in response to a report the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published this week about the revocation of books. Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said those who are incarcerated have a right to access books and other information, according to the news release.

“The Benton County jail’s book ban is cruel, unnecessary, and counterproductive — hindering the rehabilitation and constitutional rights of the people detained there,” Dickson said in the news release. “Contrary to statements made by the sheriff’s office, access to reading material is not a ‘privilege,’ it is a right protected by the First Amendment and affirmed by the courts. This book ban must be lifted immediately.”

Inmates still have access to the Bible and other printed religious material, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said Wednesday the sheriff’s office had not received any communication from the ACLU on this matter. Nearly all the books were destroyed by inmates’ misuse of them, she said.

Four inmates have written letters to the newspaper complaining they no longer have access to magazines and books. They requested their books be returned to them. One inmate complained the donated books had been put in the garbage.

Courts have affirmed the First Amendment protects incarcerated people’s access to information, including books and other reading material, according to the ACLU’s news release.

In addition, by allowing incarcerated people to read the Bible and religious texts, but not other material, prison officials are engaging in “content-based censorship,” which is only lawful if it can be shown to have a legitimate security purpose, according to the news release.

The ACLU hasn’t decided whether to seek legal action if the book policy isn’t rescinded.

“We always keep all options on the table, but we’re hopeful Benton County officials will understand that denying books to incarcerated people isn’t just unconstitutional, it’s also counterproductive and antithetical to their obligations to the community at large,” Dickson said.

Justice of the Peace Joseph Bollinger said it was the first he’s heard of the issue.

“The First Amendment, like all of our Constitution and its amendments, is essential to our liberty and the bedrock of our country,” Bollinger said. “While I understand some inmates damaged reading materials, it is important to not punish the masses for the sins of the few. Destruction of property should be handled on an individual basis, and not a group consequence.”

Bollinger said removal of reading material may border on a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which disallows cruel and unusual punishments. He said many inmates are still going through due process and are entitled to further protections under the Fifth Amendment, which states no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

Bollinger said he believes, and the Constitution affirms, inmates should have access to reading material while in the jail.

Justice of the Peace Susan Anglin said she’s had no contact from the sheriff’s office about this issue, but she supports what officials have done to protect the jail facility and the safety of the inmates and employees.

“I appreciate the sheriff’s office being proactive in trying to preserve the jail building as much as possible to save taxpayer dollars,” Anglin said. “I also appreciate the fact that access to the Bible and other printed religious material is still available for our incarcerated citizens.”

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