Behind the walls of federal prisons, chaplains have been carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries, reports the New York Times. The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs, and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.
Two inmates, a Christian and an Orthodox Jew, in a federal prison camp in upstate New York, filed a class-action lawsuit last month arguing the bureau's actions violate their rights to the free exercise of religion. Traci Billingsley of the prison bureau said it was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau defended its effort, the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way to bar access to materials that could “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.” Mark Earley of the Christian group Prison Fellowship called the campaign “swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. There's no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism.”