Monday, September 10, 2007

Faith-Based Censorship

Federal Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries:

"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[...]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."


Prisons have always enjoyed the ability to censor an inmate's religious observances and materials. Starting with Fulwood v. Clemmer (1962) and Cruz v. Beto (1972) the Supreme Court has recognized and tried to balance the rights of inmates to exercise religious expression (both Islam and Buddhism in the two cases above) with the rights and necessity for institutions to maintain security (Employment Division v. Smith, 1990). The courts have almost always sided with the state in the latter's desire to maintain control.

And at first blush, keeping inmates from incendiary texts (religious or otherwise) sounds like a good idea. From the supposed "JIS: al-Qaeda in Folsom prison" case in California in 2005 to the growing number of Muslim inmates in U.S. prisons overall, the government has been alleging a growing "terrorist threat" behind bars in the years since 9/11.

However, this "list" is troubling on a number of fronts. First, the BoP refuses to release publicly the list of religious texts which are acceptable and which aren't. They also refuse to list the panel of "experts" they convened to come up with the list in the first place.

And the implementation of the list also seems draconian, such as the purported decimation of Jewish and Islamic religious texts, along with several influential non-denominational texts. Says Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College (and who saw the list): “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."

So C.S. Lewis makes the cut, but Robert Schuller is a threat to "radicalize"? Reinhold Niebuhr is "incendiary"? And Harold S. Kushner's best-seller "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" gets the chop?

This is the problem with the slippery slope of censorship when it comes to the 1st amendment, religion and institutional security. On the one hand inmates must enjoy constitutional protections to the extent such rights don't interfere with the running of the prison. On the other hand, the state must have the power to judge when the safety of the population outweighs the rights of the individual. And as a friend of mine who does prison appellate work likes to joke, when is the security of the institution NOT a concern of prison officials?

Regardless, let's hope that institutional concerns can be handled better than this by the BoP and other departments of correction throughout the country. As it stands now, the impression one is left with is censorious nags running through prisons libraries, preparing pyres, and imposing a rather narrow-minded version of religious acceptability on those behind bars.

UPDATE: The chorus of critics condemning this apparent censorship seems to be growing.

UPDATE II: Apparently the BOP has decided to back down and re-institute the books originally purged.

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