Censorship in Prison
On Monday, the New York Times reported that federal prison libraries are removing numerous books about religious topics from their collections:
Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.
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 recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.
Some inmates are outraged. Two of them, a Christian and an Orthodox Jew, in a federal prison camp in upstate New York, filed a class-action lawsuit last month claiming the bureau’s actions violate their rights to the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The reason for this policy is concern about the presence of radical Islamist literature in prison libraries and its role in radicalizing inmates. This concern is well founded. Islamists have made a systematic effort to proselytize in prisons and convert inmates to their brand of extremism. Among their successes is Richard Reid, the December 2001 shoe bomber.
In a piece for the Weekly Standard web site, Stephen Schwartz documents the prevalence of Saudi-supplied Islamist works in prison library collections:
In assisting the Shia prisoners with their complaint, I examined a catalogue of the Islamic literature held in a New York state prison library. I found that the facility held many copies of the "classic" by the founder of Wahhabi movement, Muhammad Ibn abd al-Wahhab, the Book of Monotheism, which is merely a guidebook for persecution of alleged heretics. In addition, the library included multiple volumes by the 13th century fundamentalist Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiyya, considered the inspirer of Ibn abd al-Wahhab. Both figures are recognized as the progenitors of al Qaeda's ideology. Finally, American prisons had become known as a place where the Wahhabi version of the Koran, printed in Saudi Arabia in English, was widely distributed (see "Rewriting the Koran"). But no classics of mainstream, moderate Islam, or of Sufi spirituality, or even of Shia theology, were available to the convicts.
So yes, the policy implemented by the Bureau of Prisons is motivated by a legitimate concern. You don't really want violent criminals reading The Neglected Duty, any more than you want them reading The Turner Diaries. Unfortunately, the BOP is not engaged in a careful filtering of extremist hate literature. Rather, as the Times notes, they are engaged in an across the board weeding of religious volumes that defies both common sense and legitimate concerns about radical ideologies:
“Otisville had a very extensive library of Jewish religious books, many of them donated,” said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group. “It was decimated. Three-quarters of the Jewish books were taken off the shelves.”
Mr. Zwiebel asked, “Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?”
The Times points out that several prisoners have filed a lawsuit against the BOP over this policy, and quotes a legal scholar whose conclusion seems dead on:
The lawsuit raises serious First Amendment concerns, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, but he added that it was not a slam-dunk case.
“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. Laycock said. “But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.”
The threat of Islamist recruitment and proselytizing in prison needs to be taken seriously. However, conducting a wholesale removal of religious books from prison libraries is idiotic and wrong, and does nothing to address that threat.