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Thursday, October 4, 2007

UU prison ministry responds to fed. prison book purge.

Here's a letter about the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship's prison ministries and its response to the federal Bureau of Prisons' "Standardized Chapel Library Project." (You'll recall that no UU books appeared on the approved lists that the New York Times published last month; since then, the Bureau of Prisons has said it is delaying the purge of unapproved books.) Jane Rzepka, senior minister of CLF, and Patty Franz, director of ministries for CLF prisoner members, write:

Thank you to all those who have contacted the Church of the Larger Fellowship's Prison Ministry in the wake of the federal Bureau of Prisons' [BoP] recent decision to remove all but "pre-approved" books from federal prison libraries. We hope you saw the news that the BoP has decided to postpone the implementation of this decision, and has allowed prison chaplains to again make available books that had been removed from circulation in recent weeks (more info below).

We'd like to take this opportunity to tell you some steps the CLF has taken, and offer some observations about liberal religious literature in prisons.

Over 300 prisoners all around the country have joined the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship [CLF] seeking liberal spiritual support by mail. The CLF allows our prisoner-members to borrow books from the CLF Lending Library if their facility allows them to receive "used" books (many don't) and if they can afford to mail the books back to the CLF (many can't). As more and more prisons place restrictions on the books that prisoners may receive, and as fewer and fewer prisoners have the financial resources to purchase or even borrow religious materials, the CLF's new "BOOK PROJECT" is becoming more important and more timely.

Rev. Patty Franz, the Director of Ministries for CLF prisoner-members, has been in conversation with the staff of Skinner House books (the UUA's in-house publisher), to secure permission to download and re-format the texts of core UU books, so that chapters of these books can be printed on regular 8.5x11 paper and mailed as a first-class "letter" to CLF prisoner-members on request — thereby circumventing the increasing restrictions that prison facilities are putting on which/how many bound books prisoners may receive.

As the UU congregation serving isolated religious liberals, the CLF is committed to making UU spiritual support available to prisoners who are seeking a liberal religious alternative to the conservative Christian programming that dominates most U.S. prison programs. See for more information about the CLF Prison Ministry, and to make a gift to support the CLF and this important outreach ministry.

It may also help to note that the recent decisions by the Bureau of Prisons were directed only to federal prisons, which hold fewer than 200,000 prisoners, or less than 10% of the more than two million prisoners incarcerated in the U.S. Most prisoners in this country are held in state prisons or county jails, where such decisions about religious materials and programming are made by the individual states, by county officials, or by the chaplains and librarians (and mailroom personnel) staffing each facility.

Since the original story was reported, many UUs have wondered how many UU books were "removed from the shelves" as a result of this order. Our guess is — very few, as it's doubtful there were/are many UU books available to prisoners through prison libraries or chaplains' libraries. We know of no UU program that makes a concerted effort to send UU books or religious materials to prisons and jails in the U.S.

Even if a UU program had the funds to just mail UU books to prisons across the country, it's doubtful how many of those books would make it into the hands of prisoners, as they would have to pass through the gauntlet of prison mailroom personnel and prison chaplains and/or librarians — any one of whom could make the decision that such materials were "not appropriate" for distribution to prisoners, and consign them to "permanent storage" or dispose of them before prisoners ever saw them.

If UUs want to be sure that prisoners have access to UU materials, the best way to do so is to reach out personally to the chaplains and/or librarians at the prisons and jails near you, to educate them about Unitarian Universalism and what it has to offer those prisoners who "fall between the cracks" of most denominationally-oriented religious programming. When you know that a facility chaplain/librarian is open to receiving UU materials, and is committed to seeing that these materials will be made available to prisoners, that's the time to purchase a selection of basic UU materials to donate to that facility.

Click here for background on the Standardized Chapel Library Project.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 4 October 2007 at 7:23 AM

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