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Prisons return books after objections

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Federal Bureau of Prisons announced Sept. 26 it will return religious books and other materials previously removed from chapel libraries after receiving an outpouring of objections.

“In response to concerns expressed by members of several religious communities, the Bureau of Prisons has decided to alter its planned course of action with respect to the Chapel Library Project,” the Bureau of Prisons told The New York Times.

The bureau established the project in an attempt to remove all materials that could incite violence in prisoners. Under orders from the bureau, prison chaplains purged their libraries’ shelves of books, videos, CDs and tapes not on a list of approved materials, according to reports by The Times and Associated Press. With recommendations from a group of undisclosed experts, the bureau compiled lists of as many as 150 books and 150 other resources for 20 religions or religious bodies, The Times reported. The new policy resulted in thousands of books being removed from some libraries in the spring, according to The Times.

“We are simply returning the books to the shelves while we continue the inventory, instead of returning the books after they’re inventoried,” Traci Billingsley, a bureau spokeswoman, told Baptist Press in a Sept. 27 email. The inventory will be completed by the end of January, the bureau said in an e-mail to The Times.

Opponents of the earlier approach commended the bureau’s turnaround.

“It’s always encouraging when a government entity, in this case the Bureau of Prisons, having made a foolish decision, reconsiders, admits its mistake and reverses its bad decision,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “I applaud all of those involved in bringing this issue to a successful conclusion.”

Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, was excited about the announcement: “We applaud the Bureau of Prisons for listening to the concerns of a diversity of faith communities.

“By returning to the common-sense approach of getting rid of only those materials that incite violence, they ensure that prisoners have access to a wide range of quality religious work that will help them become productive members of society when they are released back to our communities,” Earley said in a written release.

The bureau, however, may still compile lists of approved materials, which clearly would draw further opposition from Land, Earley and others. Judi Simon Garrett, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, told The Times in an e-mail the bureau had not given up on the idea of establishing such lists.

Land and Earley both labeled the bureau’s original approach as misguided. The bureau should have worked “to identify and remove from circulation only those materials which incite hatred and violence,” Land said.

Land also criticized the earlier policy as a violation of the “free speech and religious free exercise guarantees” of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

There was a lengthy delay in the bureau’s implementation of the library project. The effort followed a 2004 report from the Justice Department that 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.

Two inmates, one an Orthodox Jew and the other a Protestant, from a prison in Otisville, N.Y., filed a class-action suit in federal court in August, contending 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 study released in 2004 was undertaken because of concerns 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 did not receive sufficient oversight, he said.
Compiled by Erica Simons, an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press, and Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press.

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