Prison purges some religious books to thwart violence

Religious books and materials once available to inmates at Mississippi’s federal prison have been removed from the facility’s library as part of a new national policy officials say is designed, in part, to thwart acts of violence or terrorism.

The Bureau of Prisons has directed prison chaplains across the country to remove any religious books or other resources that are not on reading lists recently approved by the agency.

The Yazoo City Federal Corrections Complex is complying with the policy, said Charlie Smith, public information officer for the prison.

“Any policy that’s put out by the central office, we’re going to follow it,” Smith said.

For about 20 religious categories, the Bureau of Prisons has approved lists of up to 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources, said Traci Billingsley, agency spokeswoman. All other religious books will be purged from the library.

The policy was instituted in January and libraries have until the end of September to be standardized and fully operational, Billingsley said.

“We want to make sure the materials do not discriminate, do not disparage, that they do not advocate violence or radicalize,” Billingsley said. “We want to ensure the religious resource material is consistently available for all religious groups and provides religiously reliable teaching as determined by religious subject matter experts within the agency.”

The policy was in response to a 2004 report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, which recommended ways prisons could avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant religious groups.

The policy has drawn protests from some inmates and is being challenged in court in New York. It is unclear how inmates in the Mississippi facility are reacting to the policy as Smith would not comment on that question.

David Fathi of the ACLU’s National Prison Project has criticized the systematic purging of the books, saying many of the books have been read for years by prisoners without posing a negative threat.

“This is a sweeping act of censorship that is more worthy of a totalitarian regime than the United States of America,” said Fathi, staff counsel for the Washington-based project.

The Bureau of Prisons did not publicize the new policy or release copies of the approved book lists, Fathi said.

Among the faith groups on the lists are Christian, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu and Jehovah’s Witness, Billingsley said. The bureau experts who chose the list selections worked with religious scholars from across the country, she said.

The reading lists will be updated with additions a minimum of once a year, Billingsley said.

Father Sebastian Schalk visits the Yazoo City prison each Saturday to minister to inmates. Schalk doesn’t believe the new policy will affect his ministry much because he doesn’t rely on the prison library for resources. “There isn’t much in the way of Catholic literature there, except Bibles,” Schalk said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 13, 2007.
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