Recently the Bureau of Prisons decided that material being housed in prison chapel libraries has been inciting more violence and disorder than it was fomenting good will, and has begun removing books, tapes, CD, and any other material it does not approve of.

A standard list of 150 titles for each from 20 religious groups, ranging from Baha’ism to Yoruba, has been established, with a promise of being expanded in October. Still religious experts who have seen the list are baffled about the choices on it, commenting that there are inclusions by C.S. Lewis, but none by theologians such as Reinhold Neibuhr, Karl Barth, and Cardinal Avery Dulles, nor Robert H. Schuller.

Then there is also the issue that regardless of who is on those lists, this is an affront to the First Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons was quoted in a NYT article arguing that a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department recommended that books in prisons should be taken a closer look at after the events of September 11, 2001. This argument feels more like an excuse for further censuring, since material entering prisons all over the country is already highly controlled. Besides, it is interesting that a government that has been so vocal in promoting their personal religious beliefs as a way to become a better human being, is now removing the very tools that will aid this process.

I visited a medium security prison while taking a class on library services for under serve- populations, and got to see and learn first-hand how prison libraries function. While laws vary from state to state, it is standard procedure to evaluate the intellectual content of library material before adding it to the collection. Some states further restrict books depending on whether they are hardbound or paperback; none allow material containing violent or sexual material. The only material that is federally required to be housed in every prison library are legal books, short of this, your local prison library looks very much like your local public library; hardly a breeding ground for violence and chaos.

10.04.07 – After much outcry from civil libertarians and religious groups, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has agreed to return to prison chapel libraries all the material that had been previously removed. You can read more about this new development from an article in American Libraries. Or from an article in the New York Times.