US prison inmates sue to stop purge of unapproved religious books from chapel libraries

[JURIST] Several inmates of a federal penitentiary in New York have filed a lawsuit challenging a decision by the US Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) [official website] to remove religious and spiritual books from prison chapel libraries, according to the New York Times [media website] on Monday. Prison chaplains across the country have been directed to remove from prison chapel libraries any books that are not included on a list of preferred texts compiled at the behest of BOP by religious experts. The inmates say that the program, referred to as the Standardized Chapel Library Project, violates the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [text]. The BOP says it produced the lists based on a 2004 report [PDF text] by the US Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General [official website], which provides recommendations for curbing violence and derogation related to Muslim extremism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks [JURIST news archive]. The report states that:

. . . supervision of chapel libraries is not as thorough as it should be. None of the chaplains at the facilities that we visited was able to produce an inventory of the books and videos available to the inmates, and it did not appear that these materials had been evaluated after the terrorist attacks of September 11. We recommend that the BOP undertake an inventory of chapel books and videos to confirm that they are permissible under BOP security policies. The BOP also should consider maintaining a central registry of acceptable material to prevent duplication of effort when reviewing these materials.
The BOP asserts that the list, which currently contains a limit of 150 texts and 150 multimedia items for each of 20 recognized religions or religious categories, will be expanded in October 2007 and will be again updated in the future. Many religious scholars find fault with the decision to exclude some religious materials, and many of the chapels have not been provided with funding to replace the removed books with items from the BOP approved list. The move to restrict prisoners' access to reading materials is not unprecedented; in June 2006, the US Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] in favor of allowing federal prisons to prevent the most difficult inmates from reading and possessing general-interest newspapers and magazines. The New York Times has more.


 

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