Removing Religious Books from Prison

The Baby and the Bathwater
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Six years ago, we all watched in horror as the Twin Towers crumbled to the ground, the result of men filled with hate because of their extremist Islamic beliefs.

Because of concern that such extremist beliefs may be taking root in our prisons, several members of Congress asked the Inspector General of the Department of Justice to investigate the process used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to hire Islamic chaplains. What the Inspector General (IG) found was troubling. The Bureau of Prisons had employed imams recommended by two Islamic groups without checking with the FBI about their connections to radical groups. Further, once hired, there was little knowledge of what they were preaching and doing. As the IG reported, "ample opportunity exists for them to deliver inappropriate and extremist messages."

As an aside, the IG's report also suggested that materials in prison chapel libraries be reviewed in case extremist literature advocating hate and violence had been brought in. They also suggested that after chaplains reviewed materials, the Bureau of Prisons develop a central list to avoid duplication. That made perfect sense. None of us wants literature that preaches hate and violence in our prisons.

However, in a baffling overreaction to the IG's report, the Bureau of Prisons has ordered that all religious materials be removed from chapel libraries, unless they are on a list of 150 books—you guessed it—prepared by the Bureau of Prisons for each religion. Many great books are not included—for example, Prison to Praise by Merlin Carothers; Jesus: The Man Who Lives by Malcolm Muggeridge; and Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II. Plus, only one of the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis made it on the list. This demonstrates the problems with the government preparing any list of "approved" books. 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.

Meanwhile, thousands of Christian prisoners seeking to practice or enrich their faith are going to be limited to only a few select titles. And even if they include the best books in the Christian canon, many chapel libraries do not have the ones on the list and are not receiving any money to purchase them.

There has got to be a better way to fight extremism inside prisons than by swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. 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.

Would you join me in praying for a positive outcome—that prisoners could continue to have access to a wide variety of uplifting religious literature? And please contact your congressmen and ask them to tell the Bureau of Prisons that removing good religious books was not what they had in mind when they asked the Inspector General to review the policies. You can use our Legislative Action Center at for more information, talking points, and links to contact your representatives.


From BreakPoint®, September 20, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship