Judge questions rule on religious publications

HARRISONBURG – A federal judge said during a hearing Friday that she was troubled by part of a rule at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester that allows inmates more access to religious than non-religious publications.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth K. Dillon made no ruling and scheduled the case for further proceedings on March 3. But Dillon told an attorney representing the jail that she saw a conflict between jail rules that allow inmates to read religious-oriented publications in their cells while banning possession of most other reading material in the same spaces.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by a Florida-based publication, Prison Legal News, that challenged the jail when officials banned delivery of its monthly journal and two books published by the same organization.

Superintendent James F. Whitley has struck a conciliatory tone toward the lawsuit and spoken of a possible settlement. But the two sides failed again to reach an agreement Friday after Dillon declared the hearing in recess to allow them to negotiate.

The jail’s rules allow inmates to read certain publications from a cart in the day room, but they are not allowed to take them to their cells, nor receive publications through the mail.

Religious publications and educational materials associated with GED programs are exceptions to the ban. Inmates are allowed to bring such publications to their cells.

Dillon zeroed in on the religious exception as constitutionally questionable. Most court decisions have required that any government policies favoring one kind of publication over another must not do so based on differences in their content, she said.

“What if you want to read something other than religious material?” Dillon asked Alexander Francuzenko, the attorney representing the jail.

“I don’t think it’s like a menu where you can substitute peas for carrots,” Francuzenko replied.

Whitley has cited a need to prevent inmates from using magazines to smuggle contraband into the jail as a reason for banning publications sent through the mail. Whitley has said the ban is also useful in reducing the amount of space taken up by inmates’ personal property.

Jeffrey Fogel, the attorney representing Prison Legal News, argued that he could envision circumstances in which religious publications could sow more disorder among jail inmates than non-religious material. He cited the reading of the Bible or the Quran in front of inmates of other faiths as examples.

“Maybe there’s somebody in there who hates Muslims,” Fogel told Dillon. “Maybe there’s a Muslim there who hates Christians.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com