Prisons' Purging of Faith Books Faces Opposition

Religious inmates, chaplains and lawyers are mounting criticisms against the federal order to remove non-approved religious books from prison chapels.

"Religion and ties to religious institutions and networks of people with shared faith are important protective factors that increase the chance of successful re-entry from prison," argued Jeffrey A. Fagan, professor of Law & Public Health and co-director of Columbia Law School's Center on Crime, Community and Law.

"Denial of the chance to develop the justifying ideologies of religion, and entrée to social networks of people for whom religion is both a faith and a social and often an economic tie, places former inmates at greater risk for returning to social worlds and lifestyles of crime," he added.

Chapel libraries nationwide have been forced to remove all books not on the list of 150 approved titles prepared by the Bureau of Prisons for each religion. The order came after an investigation following the 9/11 attacks found that prisons were hiring imams without checking with the FBI if they had connections to radical Islamic groups. Moreover, it was unclear what the Islamic chaplains were teaching in prison and whether the materials might have been inappropriate.

The investigation also suggested that materials in prison chapel libraries be reviewed for books which incite hate and violence.

As a result, even classic books that were left off the list – such as Jesus: The Man Who Lives by Malcolm Muggeridge, Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II, and Prison to Praise by Marlin Carothers – were removed from chapel libraries nationwide.

Also missing from the list were six of the seven books from C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series.

"Rather than reviewing the items in chapel libraries and removing materials found to advocate hate and violence while keeping materials that encourage prisoners to grow in their faith and become productive members of society, the Bureau of Prisons is throwing the baby out with the bathwater," commented Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship Ministry.

Kevin Lum, congregational network coordinator for Sojourners/Call to Renewal, also criticized the removal of great faith-based books.

"The purging of religious books from a federal institution hampers not only the discipleship of prisoners, but it should cause us to pause and ask ourselves how this happened in the name of freedom and safety," said Lum.

As an instructor who formerly taught Protestant faith formation classes at a federal prison in Kansas, Lum has credited his students' impressive understanding of theology and knowledge of church history to the prison's extensive religious library, which made them more like dialogue partners than students.

Lum's organization, Sojourners, has spearheaded an email campaign and has sent over 15,000 emails to the Bureau of Prisons expressing "outrage" over the forced removal of faith books.

"There has got to be a better way to fight extremism inside prisons than by swatting a fly with a sledgehammer," expressed Earley in a recent commentary.

The ministry head reported that Prison Fellowship is continuing to work with the Bureau of Prisons to modify its policy so that prison libraries can keep all edifying material while getting rid of extremist literature.

In some prisons, the removal of non-approved books has nearly emptied out all the shelves. Furthermore, the bureau has not provided money to purchase approved books.

Last month, two inmates – a Christian and an Orthodox Jew – in a federal prison in upstate New York filed a lawsuit claiming the Bureau of Prisons violated their right to freely exercise their religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.