U.S. prison officials have removed hundreds of religious texts, including Christian discipleship materials, from prison chapel libraries in an effort to prevent religious extremism.
Inmates of the minimum-security prison camp at Otisville Federal Correctional Institution in New York filed suit after they found the library missing 600 titles on Memorial Day, the Associated Press reported.
"The set of books that have been taken out have been ones that we used to minister to new converts when they come in here," Christian inmate John Okon told a judge last week, according to the news service. Okon, along with inmates Moshe Milstein and Douglas Kelly, are asking the court to order the titles returned to the prison chapel library.
The library cull was in response to an April 2004 Department of Justice review of U.S. prisons' recruitment and use of Muslim chaplains.
The Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General commissioned the report in 2003 in response to U.S. senators' concerns that Muslim chaplains were recruited only from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS). Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., alleged that that the organizations are connected to terrorism and Wahhabism. DOJ researchers found that recruitment and supervision of Muslim religious service providers was deficient and that a form of "prison Islam," sometimes radical, thrives in the absence of chaplains. However, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has not accepted an ISNA candidate since 2001, and the GSISS has never endorsed a U.S. prison religious worker.
In one of its 16 recommendations for the BOP, the DOJ suggested that officials screen chapel books and videos and maintain a central registry of acceptable materials.
Although the report did not make recommendations for non-Muslim religious materials, the BOP is removing resources of all religions from federal prisons across the United States.
BOP spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said the bureau is standardizing chapel library titles throughout the federal prison system. "As books are reviewed and certified as free of discrimination, violence, and radicalization, the lists for each religion will be updated to incorporate additional books into the standard libraries," said Billingsley. The books pulled from the shelves have been placed in storage, not thrown out, she said.
BOP religious advisors were asked to certify 100 to 150 books in their area of expertise that provided "religiously reliable teaching" and would not encourage violence or radicalism. The books they selected remain in prison chapel libraries; prison officials removed all other titles.
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.
Religious liberty groups are divided over the cull.
Steven Freeman, associate director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, applauds the measures as limiting extremism in prisons.
"It's a legitimate concern that the government has in terms of what books are available to prisoners," he said. "Hopefully that decision is made with some good discussion and good discretion about what is extremist and what is mainstream."
Prison Fellowship Mark Earley agrees that inmate radicalization is a problem, but says the BOP's solution is overly broad.
"I think there is a more precise method to deal with the concerns of radical literature in prisons without dictating to each faith group a limited number of books allowed in the libraries," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of these books in prison chapel libraries of all faiths are fine."