Home » News » S.C. bans inmates from in-person interviews; lawsuit wants to change that

By Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press, published on February 27, 2024

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A guard tower stands above the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Bishopville, S.C. AP Photo/Sean Rayford, file

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina prison policy banning inmates from speaking to reporters in person or having their writings directly published violates the First Amendment free-speech rights of prisoners, a civil rights organization said in a federal lawsuit filed Feb. 22.

While prisons across the county place some restrictions on in-person media interviews with inmates — such as when they take place, how long they can last and whether an inmate has to initiate the interview request — the South Carolina Department of Corrections blanket ban stands out, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

“It operates to insulate SCDC from real public accountability and to suppress the public’s knowledge about the violence committed against prisoners — wrongs that are committed in the public’s own name,” said Allen Chaney, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina.

A spokeswoman for the state’s prisons said the policy in place for decades protects the rights of the victims of the crimes that sent the inmates to prison in the first place, and helps prison employees maintain strict control over inmate communications, which, without limits, can threaten security and safety.

“This doesn’t mean that inmates are completely cut off from the outside world, as there are usually controlled methods of communication, such as monitored phone calls or written correspondence, that allow inmates access to the media while minimizing security risks,” Corrections Department spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said in a statement.

The ACLU’s lawsuit also targets the prisons ban that prohibits inmates from directly publishing their own words, though they can be quoted in part or summarized in a publication.

The civil rights organization said Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail justifying civil disobedience against unjust laws or the four New Testament books of the Bible written when the Apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome nearly 2,000 years ago couldn’t be published under the South Carolina rules.

The lawsuit mentions two inmates being represented by the ACLU who want to tell their stories in person or firsthand, but can’t. One is a transgender woman who killed her mother when she was 13, was diagnosed behind bars with gender dysphoria and is suing the state prison system over denial of care.

The second is death-row inmate Marion Bowman, convicted of killing a woman and burning her body in a car trunk. Bowman wants to tell his story as he prepares to ask the governor for clemency, the ACLU said.

“A blog post … about how great a loss it would be if South Carolina kills Marion Bowman is no substitute for the public hearing Marion’s own voice, his own laugh, his own anguish,” the ACLU’s lawsuit said.

The civil rights group plans to ask a federal judge to immediately suspend the ban until the lawsuit can be fully heard.

South Carolina prison officials said earlier lawsuits over inmates’ free-speech rights have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found restrictions are OK if they aren’t based on the content of the speech and if all avenues of communications aren’t cut off.

South Carolina inmates can write to anyone, including reporters, and inmates who can’t afford stamps or stationary can get them, Shain said.

She also said The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston wrote to more than 400 inmates and got letters back from at least 100 as it reported on a 2018 prison riot at the Lee Correctional Institution, where seven inmates were killed.

Inmates can also approve reporters to be on their telephone lists as long as their own words aren’t recorded and rebroadcast. The Associated Press interviewed one of two inmates who killed four fellow prisoners in 2017 in this way.

Alex Murdaugh, the former lawyer serving two life sentences for killing his wife and son, got into trouble because his recorded phone call with his lawyer was played as part of a documentary.

Officials do allow cameras inside prisons for tours or specific programs, and have allowed interviews with inmates during those visits, but only if faces are not shown and just first names are used.

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