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Prison book policy called unconstitutional

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Federal Bureau of Prisons is guilty of “flagrant disregard” of the First Amendment through its widespread removal of religious books and resources from chapel libraries, a Southern Baptist church-state specialist says.

The Bureau of Prisons has ordered chaplains to purge their libraries’ shelves of books, videos, CDs and tapes not on a list of approved materials, according to reports by The New York Times and Associated Press. With recommendations from a group of experts, the bureau compiled lists of as many as 150 books and 150 other resources for each of 20 religions or religious bodies, The Times reported. The new policy, however, has resulted in thousands of books being removed from some libraries, according to The Times.

The long-delayed effort was instituted after a 2004 report from the Justice Department made recommendations for prisons to follow in order to prevent the conversion of inmates to radical forms of Islam and other religions that promote violence, a bureau official told The Times.

The policy violates the “free speech and religious free exercise guarantees” of the First Amendment to the Constitution, said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The bureau’s approach “is like taking a nuclear missile to a quail hunt,” Land said. “The Federal Bureau of Prisons clearly has a right to censor material that would incite violence. However, while prisoners do not have all the rights that are guaranteed to Americans who are not incarcerated, they have not been reduced to only being allowed access to those religious materials that have the Bureau of Prisons’ stamp of approval.”

The bureau should have taken a targeted approach, Land said.

“A far better solution would be to have the Bureau of Prisons personnel, working in conjunction with our federal chaplains in each prison, to identify and remove from circulation only those materials which incite hatred and violence, as opposed to the current policy,” he said.

Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, also criticized the approach as overkill but said the Washington-area ministry is attempting to help the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons recognize the policy’s defects and rescind it.

“There’s no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of quality books simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism,” Earley said in a written statement. “Prison Fellowship continues to work with BOP officials to develop a process that will remove materials that advocate violence and hate without impeding access to wholesome, faith-filled books that will help inmates change their lives.”

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley defended the policy. “We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts,” she said, according to The Times.

The list of approved books for Christianity and other religions is available only through Freedom of Information Act requests, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman told Baptist Press. She also said the names of the specialists who helped produce the approved lists of resources have not been released.

The lists include nine books by C.S. Lewis and at least one by German pastor and writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer but none by theologians Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, The Times reported. “The Purpose-Driven Life,” a best-seller by Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren, was removed from a New York prison, AP reported, apparently indicating it is not on the list of approved books.

The lists will be enlarged in October, Billingsley told The Times.

Two inmates, one an Orthodox Jew and the other a Protestant, from the prison in Otisville, N.Y., filed a class-action suit in federal court in August contending that the policy infringes on their rights to freely exercise their religion, according to AP. They originally had brought suit in June but withdrew it after a judge said they should complain to prison officials first, AP reported.

“The set of books that have been taken out have been ones that we used to minister to new converts when they come in here,” said John Okon, the Christian inmate who is a party in the suit, according to AP. He described the new policy as regrettable because he has “really seen religion turn around the life of some of these men, especially in the Christian community.”

The study released in 2004 was undertaken because of fear that prisons “had been radicalized by inmates who were practicing or espousing various extreme forms of religion, specifically Islam, which exposed security risks to the prisons and beyond the prisons to the public at large,,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Brian Feldman told a federal judge in the original case in June, AP reported. The report found prison chapel libraries do not receive sufficient oversight, he said.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.