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BOP Removes Religious Books; Capitulates After Public Outrage, Lawsuit

In June 2007, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) began removing thousands of religious books from its prison chapels. The purge of religious literature, which occurred nationwide, was part of a long-delayed post-September 11 directive intended to prevent radical Islamic texts from being available to prisoners.

The directive, called the Standardized Chapel Library Project (SCLP), affected books related to all religions ? presumably to avoid content-related censorship issues. Under the SCLP, each of 20 designated religions was limited to an average of 150 books. Some of the restrictions were fairly arbitrary; for example, Praying by J.I. Packer was on the approved list but Knowing God, by the same author, was not.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Feldman said the book removal resulted following an April 2004 Department of Justice review of how prisons choose Muslim religious service providers. Federal officials said they feared that prisons ?had been radicalized by inmates who were practicing or espousing various extreme forms of religion, especially Islam, which exposed security risks to the prisons and beyond the prisons to the public at large,? Feldman stated.

However, under the SCLP the BOP removed more than alleged radical Islamic texts. ?A lot of what we are missing were definitely prayer books or prayer guides and religious laws on the part of the Muslim faith,? said prisoner Douglas Kelly. ?The set of books that have been taken out have been ones that we used to minister to new converts when they come in here,? added prisoner John Okon, a Christian.

When the new policy went into effect at the federal prison camp in Otisville, New York, three prisoners ? Kelly, Okon and Moshe Milstein ? filed suit in U.S. District Court on August 21, 2007.

The BOP maintained that the SCLP was limited only to the books in its prison chapels, and prisoners could bypass the restrictions by ordering their own books. ?So, fundamentally this is not a case about what books the inmates have to read,? said Feldman. He failed to note that many religious texts are hard for prisoners to find and many are prohibitively expensive. He also failed to anticipate the response from religious organizations, civil rights groups and members of Congress.

Republican lawmakers strongly criticized the removal of religious literature from prison chapels. In a letter sent to BOP Director Harley Lappin, members of the Congressional Republican Study Committee stated, ?We must ensure that in America the federal government is not the undue arbiter of what may or may not be read by our citizens.? The SCLP was also condemned by evangelical talk shows and mainstream religious groups such as Prison Fellowship and the Aleph Institute.

Under pressure and scrutiny, the BOP began backing down. First it said that books not on the approved list would be allowed if they were requested by prisoners, the chaplain sent a certification request to the BOP, and the book was placed on an updated approval list. Then, on September 26, 2007, the department scrapped the SCLP and announced the purged religious texts would be returned. However, the BOP still intends to complete an inventory of prison chapel libraries in 2008, and plans to remove specific literature that it deems a threat to security.

The federal court overseeing the lawsuit filed by Milstein, Okon and Kelly initially refused to block the removal of religious books, saying the litigation was premature due to failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. After the BOP rescinded the SCLP and agreed to return the books to prison chapels, the lawsuit was dismissed on Nov. 21, 2007 with a stipulated order submitted by both parties. See: Milstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, USDC SD NY, Case No. 07-cv-7434-LTS-FM.

Sources: Associated Press, New York Times

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Related legal case

Milstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons