ACLU Sues South Carolina Department of Corrections for First Amendment Violations of Incarcerated

By Emeline Crowder 

COLUMBIA, SC – Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of South Carolina filed a federal lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), which has instituted a complete ban on news and media interviews with incarcerated people.

Although not the only state to have restrictions on speech and press access for the incarcerated, according to the ACLU, “South Carolina’s policy is uniquely draconian. The SCDC takes the position that incarcerated people ‘lose the privilege of speaking to the news media when they enter SCDC.’”

According to Emerson Sykes, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, “The SCDC’s categorical rule that incarcerated people can never talk to the press or anyone else for the purpose of publication is blatantly unconstitutional.”

While also in violation of South Carolina’s First Amendment right to “receive and publish the speech of incarcerated people,” the ACLU said the policy of the SCDC also causes a large reduction in the public’s understanding important topics regarding the prison system, such as “prison conditions, treatment of LGBTQ individuals and other vulnerable prisoners, and the propriety of capital punishment.”

Allen Chaney, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina, said if the policy of the SCDC had been implemented in the past, it would have denied the public of access to works such as “Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and four books of the New Testament.”

The ACLU noted the policy was on full display during the high-profile murder trial of Alex Murdaugh showing “incarcerated people and their legal teams can face punishment for publicizing written or recorded statements.”

While the injustices of the Murdaugh case were highlighted in mainstream media, the ACLU also “seeks to address the routine violations of all incarcerated people’s rights, including in lower-profile cases.”

One example noted by the plaintiffs is the case of Marion Bowman, Jr., who is currently on death row in Columbia.

In quoting Bowman’s complaint to the governor, the ACLU emphasizes the importance of sharing his story in saying that “the sound of another person’s voice can break the demonizing and other constructs that the public has about ‘prisoners,’ and can reveal the multidimensional humanity possessed by those behind bars.”

According to Rev. Hillary Taylor, executive director of South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, “The citizens of South Carolina deserve to know who they are keeping alive with their tax dollars. It’s time for SCDC to stop acting like it’s a ‘black box’ of state secrets and allow media access to South Carolina’s death row.”

About The Author

Emeline is a third year undergraduate at UC Davis, studying International Relations and French. She is passionate about law, the criminal justice system and international politics, and hopes to pursue a career in diplomacy in the future. In her free time, Emeline loves to read, craft and hike.

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