Monday, September 10, 2007

Religious Texts Being Removed From Prison Libraries

The New York Times reports today that a large number of U.S. prison libraries are removing religious items from their shelves. In response to instructions to remove items from their libraries that are not on an approved list, a large number of religious texts, compact discs and videos are being purged from these prison libraries; in some instances, this has included the removal of “thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups”.

In opposition to the removal of these items, two inmates – a Christian and an Orthodox Jew – have filed a class action lawsuit based on their freedom to exercise religion under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In defending the actions of the prisons, a spokesperson states that the removal of these items is in response to reports that recommend such procedure in order “to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups”.

Prison chaplains and prison ministers agree that such action may be excessive, especially due to the fact that they feel that the removal of religious items from the libraries prevents prisoners’ from accessing these materials, when the focus of rehabilitation for a number of prisoners relies on religious-based solutions to social problems. Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship is quoted as saying, “It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer”, believing that the such mass purging is the result of a small number of items which some feel present an extreme religious point of view.

The Bureau of Prisons, with the assistance of experts, has created a list of approved religious materials covering a wide range of religious beliefs. Unfortunately, no additional funds are being provided to prisons, meaning that many of these libraries are unable to purchase the approved materials and replace the items they are being asked to discard.

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