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Sheriff's office settles religious freedom lawsuit's legal fees

  • Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dan Brown/Independent Hill-Finklea Detention Center came under fire in 2011 for limiting inmate access to published materials.

Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office will pay a $35,000 settlement of lawyer fees to end a First Amendment lawsuit that claimed it violated the religious freedoms of inmates at Hill-Finklea Detention Center, according to the office’s attorney Sandy Senn.

The lawyers’ fees were settled Aug. 12, the day after Berkeley County Council approved negotiation of legal fees to the plaintiff, Prison Legal News.

The lawsuit was filed in April 2011. According to the complaint, the sheriff’s office and DeWitt prohibited a “wide range of religious materials.” A Jewish inmate said he could not obtain a Torah except by hand delivery by a family member, and Muslim inmates said they found it difficult to obtain copies of the Koran even if delivered by a family member. Published materials from the Prison Legal News to the Berkeley Independent were also banned, according to the plaintiff.

According to the complaint, only the King James Bible was accessible to inmates. The U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union joined Prison Legal News in the case.

In 2012, the county settled the suit for a consent decree and about $600,000 in damages, according to Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright. The decree mandated the jail’s screening process be monitored.

Senn said the settlement was a result of the jail “heading in the right direction.”

“They feel our jail has made vast improvements since 2013 (when monitoring began),” Senn said. “We were able to get it all worked out.”

Wright said that, at the time the suit was brought, 31 jails in the state banned published materials and now no jails ban published materials. And while he sees the case as a victory, he still questions the county.

“They vigorously defended their unconstitutional practices until the bitter end ... It’s bad when you see government agencies defend the undefensable with taxpayer dollars,” Wright said. “I’m hoping that the point has been made, and that they’ll continue to respect the Constitution.”

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