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.

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