Unshackled Hearts, Inc., represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Howard County Jail, claiming the current policy limiting what books can be sent to people incarcerated in the facility is unconstitutional.  

Unshackled Hearts is a not-for-profit prison ministry that attempts to assist in the rehabilitation of incarcerated Hoosiers by offering spiritual counseling, by communicating with incarcerated people through a variety of means, and by providing reading materials, by ordering and having those materials delivered directly to the prison or jail in which an individual is incarcerated.   

Over the past several years, Howard County Jail has implemented a series of policies that have severely restricted the ability of Unshackled Hearts to send books to people in the Jail. Beginning on January 1, 2023, with a couple of limited exceptions, the Jail banned receipt of books entirely. After Unshackled Hearts raised concerns about this policy, the Jail amended its policy effective to allow a limited number of books to be sent directly from publishers, but not from distributors such as Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.  

The lawsuit claims that the Howard County Jail’s current policy violates the First Amendment, and because the services offered by Unshackled Hearts constitute an exercise of its own religion that has been substantially burdened by the Jail’s policies, the policies also violate Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“Systematically denying incarcerated Hoosiers access to books has been found to violate the U.S. Constitution,” said Gavin M. Rose, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Indiana. “The policy in place at Howard County Jail is nothing short of censorship, and there is no justification for shutting people off from the outside world in such a draconian way.” 

Unshackled Hearts has been unable to effectively operate its prison ministry in the jail under either the since-superseded book ban or the current book policy. 

"Our aim is to provide support and mentorship that matches each inmate's specific needs, education, and place in life. Part of this process is supplying individualized reading material, which aids the rehabilitation process by stimulating emotional, spiritual, and mental growth,” said Karen Ely, director of Unshackled Hearts. “Severely restricting access to quality books is counterproductive to nearly every objective correctional institutions should endeavor to achieve."