One shoe off

September 15, 2007

This is SO 1984 …

Filed under: 9/11,Bad Government,books,constitution,Jesus,libraries — Liz @ 10:04 pm

<sigh> I’d like to get a hold of a prison chaplain and ask them for a copy of the list.

In brief, the Bureau of Prisons has decided that prison chaplains must remove from their libraries any material not on a pre-approved list. Why? Need you ask? The same reason the government makes every decision lately: to combat terrorism. The feds don’t want prisoners converting to Islam while their in prison.

The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”

Ms. Billingsley said, “We really wanted consistently available information for all religious groups to assure reliable teachings as determined by reliable subject experts.”

The copy of the list is not public, but according to my Web research C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a whole bunch of Orthodox Jewish books are in. Barth, Niebuhr, Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People) and Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) are out. Also gone are the Hadith, and the works of Moses Maimonides.

At the Otisville prison in New York, according to one report, the post-purge Muslim section of the library has been reduced to the Qur’an and two other books. Three-quarters of the Jewish books in the same prison were removed.

As a theological student and someone who spends a great deal of time and energy reading religious books, this first of all hits me at a very visceral level. I’m trying to imagine the pain of visiting the prison chapel library and finding gaping holes in the shelves. And what about the anguish of having a treasured prayer book suddenly removed (as many Muslim prayer books have been)?

On an intellectual/ethical level, this is completely unacceptable. One of my core theological principles is that of soul liberty … the freedom (and responsibility) of each individual to choose what her/his conscience dictates is right, free from the control or coercion of church, government, family, friends or any other outside entity. To restrict access to religious texts is unconscionable from a religio-ethical standpoint because it interferes with the individual’s ability to explore her/his relationship to and understanding of God.
From a constitutional standpoint, this kind of restriction interferes with prisoners’ freedom of religion, of a few rights that they still retain. Further, I would argue that the freedom to read is another core human right that prisoners should retain.

Finally, from a pastoral perspective, faith is an important part of many inmates’ lives. To restrict their access to books that encourage and strengthen their faith is to do tremendous damage. In many libraries, the shelves have been all but emptied by this project (called, btw, the Standardized Chapel Library Project. Incidentally, it’s been going on since MAY). The project did NOT, however, include any funds to help the libraries replenish their collections with approved books. So now many inmates looking for enlightenment, encouragement and solace are faced with gaping holes on the library shelves.


  1. As a librarian I find any kind of censorship reprehensible, however, let us not forget that every convict has his/her rights taken away because he or she did something naughty, and subsequently requires punishment and rehabilitation. They haven’t removed all religious titles, nor have they been forbidden to worship as they see fit. Convicts live under restrictions of all kinds. Convicted felons lose their right to vote, permanently! I was just reading an article in The New York Times about the Supermax prison in Colorado. I was amazed to learn that prisoners their get newspapers 30 days after they’re published, and only after they are heavily censored by removing articles they aren’t allowed to see. Convicts don’t have the same rights that other do, even after they’re “rehabilitated” and released, that’s the price of being naughty, and a lesson for everyone.

    Comment by Woeful — September 16, 2007 @ 7:52 am | Reply

  2. i would describe myself as having a christian history rather than a christian faith, but if there’s anything i believe in it is books. i worship books, books themselves, not even the information contained therein, make me feel weepy and strongly emotional. the very existence of libraries is what gives me hope for the future of civilization, as one of the quotes in harold washington says.
    the idea of restricting books of anysort to anyone also strkes terror in me. it’s funny, my presbyterian republican rural living grandmother and i agree on very few things, esp. in regards to religion or politics, but she’s a retired librarian, and one thing we can agree on is the power of books, the neccessity of of their availability, and the fruitlessness of banning them.

    Comment by caitlin leah — September 16, 2007 @ 11:41 am | Reply

  3. I got to visit a medium security prison to look at their library, and found out that while it is true that people behind bars do loose most of their rights, material entering the prison is already highly restricted. It is obscene to be going ahead with further dismantling of what are already small, and mostly neutral collections. Libraries are our one hope to help people in prisons, the last thing we should want to do is get rid of them!

    Comment by colombianflowers — September 16, 2007 @ 5:25 pm | Reply

  4. What I find wrong with this situation is the reason they are censoring these books. We are in a post 9/11 world where everyone is scared of being destroyed because we finally see that even our great nation isn’t immune to terror. So we’re protecting ourselves but at what cost? They start with prison libraries but what’s to keep them from continuing to infiltrate our school libraries and then our public ones?

    Comment by moneypenny — September 17, 2007 @ 6:03 pm | Reply

  5. It’s interesting to me who decides what is advocating of violence/terrorism. I recognize that inflamatory content is probably not a good idea, but limiting theological writing is a very slippery slope. If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to take the bible out too. It’s been used by an awful lot of people to advocate violence.
    On another note, I worked in a juvenile facility where we had Sexually Aggressive Youth. We tried to limit sexual content, but anyone who knows anything about teenage boys knows that this is an exercise in futility. Linoleum can be arousing to a teenage boy.

    Comment by Mark — September 18, 2007 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

  6. Woeful(#1), if you truly find censorship as reprehensible as you claim, why is it any less so for those who have been convicted of crimes? At issue here are access to religious books, not the ability to own a firearm someday or be able to vote again. (I happen to disagree with the prohibition on voting as well: if a prisoner has “paid his debt to society” and is released as a result, why deny further rights?)

    With studies that link that religious participation to a decrease in negative prison behaviors, it seems hardly prudent to discourage religious involvement in prisoners by limiting their access to religious texts.

    Comment by Tom Hoberg — September 18, 2007 @ 10:15 pm | Reply

  7. Hey, in case you missed it…success!!!

    Comment by Tom Hoberg — September 27, 2007 @ 12:37 am | Reply

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