Chaplains in US Prisons are being forced to remove many books from their library shelves because they might “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.” According to the New York Times article Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries, this is an effort called the Standardized Chapel Library Project which began in 2004 after the Justice Department wanted to make sure militant Islam didn’t have a breeding ground in prisons.

It appears they may have gone too far and not really done their homework.  Many organizations such as Prison Fellowship have done substantial good both in preventing recidivism and also improving living conditions for inmates by helping bring Jesus into prisons. 

At least the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons didn’t discriminate any specific religion.  The article says that 20 religions or religious categories were selected for the 150 book and 150 multimedia library. The lists may be expanded periodically.

While the bureau claims to have included experts in the decision making/selection process, other experts/scholars are unhappy. 

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.

“Otisville had a very extensive library of Jewish religious books, many of them donated,” said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group. “It was decimated. Three-quarters of the Jewish books were taken off the shelves.”

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (who edited “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism,” which did make the list), said the Catholic list had some glaring omissions, few spiritual classics and many authors he had never heard of.

Wrong Approach

One chaplain said its unnecessary,

The effort is unnecessary, the chaplain said, because chaplains routinely reject any materials that incite violence or disparage, and donated materials already had to be approved by prison officials. Prisoners can buy religious books, he added, but few have much money to spend.

A simpler approach might have been to ban certain books, a move already completed last year which banned 9 publishers both Muslim and Christian.

First Amendment

The Standardized Plan first came to light in May because inmates filed a lawsuit, which was picked up pro bono by a New York law firm. While it seems they might have an easy case because the government shouldn’t promote or not promote certain religious thoughts, it does have the right to prohibit certain items for the “good of the group” in a prison setting.  They may have over-stepped their bounds in this case.

This could be an interesting case to follow.  What are your thoughts? I think this is a major setback for faith education of prisoners, many who could come back out to society and make a positive difference in our world.

 

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