WASHINGTON (AP) — Religious materials are being returned to prison chapel libraries, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said Thursday, confirming plans to modify a program designed to remove religious books and videos that could incite violence.
The change follows objections by members of Congress and religious groups.
Removal of religious material grew out of congressional inquiries and a 2004 Justice Department Inspector General report suggesting that chapel books and videos should be reviewed to ensure they were allowed under prison security policies.
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In response, the prison system’s religious services branch agreed to provide an automated list of appropriate materials and to advise chaplains to use the automated list for future library purchases.
Only a portion of the material had been examined before prison officials three months ago began a mass removal of religious materials from chapel libraries.
“We got behind the eight-ball” in compiling the list of acceptable books and videos, said bureau spokeswoman Judi Simon Garrett. If materials were not on the partial list, they were removed, and that prompted an outcry from lawmakers and religious groups.
Garrett said material removed since June will be returned to prison chapel libraries unless the material has been found inappropriate, such as books or videos that could be radicalizing or inciting violence.
By June 2008, “what comes off the shelves will be a very, very small number, because the vast majority of material will be on the ‘that’s OK list,'” Garrett said.
A letter from the House Republican Study Committee last week urged the Bureau of Prisons to ensure that the federal government is not the undue arbiter of what may or may not be read. The committee is a caucus of some of the most conservative Republicans in the House.
The caucus chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., expressed concern despite the Bureau of Prison’s latest move, saying “they haven’t shelved the project.”
“It appears they’ve taken the car and put it in neutral, but they didn’t put it in park,” said Hensarling.
“There’s probably a limited universe of materials that incite violence, and I understand that perhaps those need to be banned,” said Hensarling. “Instead, what the Bureau of Prisons appears to be doing is really censoring religious texts, deciding what is acceptable.”
Prison Fellowship President Mark Early said “it took years for chaplains, local churches and other religious organizations to build up the holdings of many prison chapel libraries. Prisoners need access to more material to promote rehabilitation, not less. We want to monitor the process.” The Christian group advocates for criminal justice reform.