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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fed. prisons purge religious books not on approved list.

[Updated!] Here's a story of 9/11 overreach for you: Apparently the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons decided back in 2004 that it needed to remove any books that might transform prisoners into militantly anti-American Muslims. Rather than come up with a list of radical books to ban, they hit instead on the even more misguided idea of setting up the "Standardized Chapel Library Project" — a list of "up to 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources for each of 20 religions or religious categories — everything from Bahaism to Yoruba." As Laurie Goodstein reports in the New York Times:

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.

Although neither the Bureau of Prisons nor the Times will release the approved list, people who have seen it have noted some significant gaps:

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. A Catholic scholar and an evangelical Christian scholar who looked over some of the lists were baffled at the selections.

Timothy Larsen, who holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, an evangelical school, looked over lists for "Other Christian" and "General Spirituality."

"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.

An article in the New York Law Journal mentions a few more omissions:

[B]anned materials at Otisville include two fundamental Jewish works — Maimonides' "Mishneh Torah Systematic Code of Jewish Law" and the "Zohar," a primary text of Kabbalah — as well as the popular "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. Among the purged Christian works is the best-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life," by Rick Warren. Further, according to the complaint, the Muslim section of the library at Otisville has been stripped of Islamic "prayer books, prayer guides and the 'Hadith,' which is the most important source for Muslim practice and faith after the Koran."

No word yet on which Unitarian Universalist books or media are on the approved list.

("Prisons purging books on faith from libraries," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 9.10.07, reg req'd; "Public interest projects," Thomas Adcock, New York Law Journal 8.24.07)

Update 9.12.07: A few more bits of the story, collected over the course of the day:

The American Academy of Religion issued a statement today clarifying that the AAR has had no role in developing the Bureau of Prisons list. As for the hard-to-find list of purged books, Christianity Today reported on the prison library purge back on July 10, with this detail no one else has reported:

The BOP is now working to complete a list of acceptable religious books of all faiths, which will not be available until October. After its initial release, the list will be updated and released annually, said a BOP representative.

Also: Newsweek mentioned the purge in its August 13 "BeliefWatch" column, and the Associated Press reported on the purge August 22. Track new developments with Google News and blog responses via Technorati.

("Executive director clarifies mention of AAR in the New York Times," Jack Fitzmier, American Academy of Religion 9.12.07; "Book bust," Elizabeth Lawson, Christianity Today [online only] 7.10.07; "Banned?" Lisa Miller, Newsweek 8.13.07; "2 New Yorkers sue to get their banned religious books back," Associated Press, International Herald Tribune 8.22.07)

Update 9.28.07:

Facing pressure from religious groups, civil libertarians and members of Congress, the federal Bureau of Prisons has decided to return religious materials that had been purged from prison chapel libraries because they were not on the bureauís lists of approved resources. . . .

The bureau has not abandoned the idea of creating such lists, Judi Simon Garrett, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message. But rather than packing away everything while those lists were compiled, the religious materials will remain on the shelves, Ms. Garrett explained.

("Prisons to restore purged religious books," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 9.27.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 12 September 2007 at 7:45 AM

Previous: AAR events: Unitarian Universalist theology in context.
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11 comments:

Philocrites:

September 12, 2007 10:31 AM | Permalink for this comment

Track other news reports and editorials about the Bureau of Prisons' list via Google News. Follow blog responses to this story at Technorati.

Philocrites:

September 12, 2007 10:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

Here's an earlier Associated Press story, picked up by the International Herald Tribune August 22: "2 New York prisoners sue to get their banned religious books back."

See also Lisa Miller's "BeliefWatch" column in the August 13 Newsweek: "Banned?".

To reduce the risk that prisoners will find hateful or radicalizing (read: terrorist) materials in chapel libraries, the BOP has developed lists of 150 approved books per religion for 20 religions, including Bahai, Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses. In all of the bureau's 114 prisons, chaplains are in the midst of dramatic reorganizations, removing from shelves any book not on one of the BOP's lists. "It was a huge undertaking," says Traci Billingsley, a BOP spokeswoman.

Philocrites:

September 12, 2007 10:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

See especially this July 10 story from Christianity Today's web-only edition, which has more detail about the Bureau of Prisons initiative, including this:

The BOP is now working to complete a list of acceptable religious books of all faiths, which will not be available until October. After its initial release, the list will be updated and released annually, said a BOP representative.

("Book bust," Elizabeth Lawson, Christianity Today 7.10.07)

hafidha sofia:

September 12, 2007 01:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jason Pitzl-Waters posted about this recently at The Wild Hunt Blog, from a pagan perspective.

Philocrites:

September 12, 2007 04:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

The American Academy of Religion responds to concerns raised by the Times article that the AAR itself was involved in the purge of religious books from prison libraries. Executive director Jack Fitzmier writes that the AAR's executive committee and staff were not involved in developing the Bureau of Prisons list. As far as he knows, AAR members were not involved, either.

(Thanks to reader JW for letting me know about the AAR statement.)

Philocrites:

September 14, 2007 07:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

Michael Gerson (Bush's former speechwriter turned Washington Post columnist) writes today about the prison book purge, with new quotes from Kevin J. Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the David Fathi of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

("Prison library purge,", Michael Gerson [op-ed], Washington Post 9.14.07; via Boston Globe)

Doug Muder:

September 16, 2007 07:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

What's even more amazing than the result is to try to picture the process: Imagine being in the room when this idea was first floated. Do we all just nod our heads and say, "Yeah, that'll work fine."

And then somebody had to put a lot of effort into coming up with the 150-book lists for each religion. (And who came up with the list of religions? How many of them are there?) Did no one say: "This is nutty."? And what about the prison librarians? Did they just look at their lists and start sweeping books off the shelves? Did nobody go to their local wardens and say, "You're kidding, right?"

And clearly no one involved remembers being a kid and secretly getting hold of some book or magazine your parents wouldn't let you have. Banning something gives it a numinous quality. It must be really powerful if the authorities think they have to keep it away from you. They won't let you have guns, and they won't let you have this book. What does that tell you?

bob:

September 18, 2007 12:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

When The Chronicles of Narnia are outlawed, ONLY OUTLAWS will have the Chronicles of Narnia. Any questions?

Stentor:

September 19, 2007 11:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

People who run prisons love banning stuff, so they'll take whatever flimsy excuse they can get. I think it's a combination of power trip and boredom relief when they check for contraband.

Philocrites:

September 21, 2007 11:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

The New York Times published the lists of approved religious books developed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There is no list of Unitarian Universalist books among them, although there are a handful of Beacon Press titles on the General Spirituality list, including "The Spiritual Emerson." I've been unable so far to find Jack Mendelsohn's "Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age: Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist," Forrest Church and John Buehrens's "A Chosen Faith," any of Forrest Church's other books, or anything published by the UUA or Skinner House Books.

("Critics right and left protest book removals," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 9.21.07; via The Wild Hunt)

Philocrites:

September 27, 2007 06:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Update!

Facing pressure from religious groups, civil libertarians and members of Congress, the federal Bureau of Prisons has decided to return religious materials that had been purged from prison chapel libraries because they were not on the bureauís lists of approved resources. . . .

The bureau has not abandoned the idea of creating such lists, Judi Simon Garrett, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message. But rather than packing away everything while those lists were compiled, the religious materials will remain on the shelves, Ms. Garrett explained.

("Prisons to restore purged religious books," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 9.27.07)



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