Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.
The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.
Some inmates are outraged. Two of them, a Christian and an Orthodox Jew, in a federal prison camp in upstate New York, filed a class-action lawsuit last month claiming the bureau’s actions violate their rights to the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”
Ms. Billingsley said, “We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts.”
But prison chaplains, and groups that minister to prisoners, say that an administration that put stock in religion-based approaches to social problems has effectively blocked prisoners’ access to religious and spiritual materials — all in the name of preventing terrorism.
The Bureau of Prisons said it relied on experts to produce lists of up to 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources for each of 20 religions or religious categories — everything from Bahaism to Yoruba. The lists will be expanded in October, and there will be occasional updates, Ms. Billingsley said. Prayer books and other worship materials are not affected by this process.
The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.
“Otisville had a very extensive library of Jewish religious books, many of them donated,” said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group. “It was decimated. Three-quarters of the Jewish books were taken off the shelves.”
Shockingly (not) there appear to be certain biases:
In some cases, the lists indicate their authors’ preferences. For example, more than 80 of the 120 titles on the list for Judaism are from the same Orthodox publishing house...
“There are some well-chosen things in here,” Professor Larsen said. “I’m particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” But he continued, “There’s a lot about it that’s weird.” The lists “show a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism,” he said, and lacked materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations.
Because if there's one group of religious people who encourage violence, it's liberal theologians.
What were they thinking? How could it possibly be a good idea -- or remotely Constitutional -- for the government to decide which religious books are okay and which aren't? Anyway, if we're going to start removing religious books from prisons for condoning violence, wouldn't the Old Testament and the Quran have to be at the front of the line? Obviously, they can't remove those, so what's the point?
Hat tip to Marina Grace.