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Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries

As part of the ongoing response to 9/11, inmates in Federal prisons are now finding their access to religious books severely curtailed. The Department of Justice doesn’t want literature advocating violence to get into the hands of prisoners, but the sledgehammer being used to crack that particular nut has been a wholesale clear-out of prison libraries.

The Bureau wishes to bar access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”

Only 150 Buddhist titles have been approved for use in prisons, despite the fact that Buddhism is one of the least likely faiths to advocate terrorism. If prisons happen not to have those 150 titles then inmates’ access to Buddhist titles will be next to impossible. It’s quite possible, for example, that some prisons have ended up with no Buddhist books at all, and that entire libraries, in many cases built up by donations from volunteers, have been entirely discarded.

I’ve been told by a chaplains of a Federal prison that he has no budget for religious titles and that he is therefore dependent on book donations. Obtaining the 150 approved titles will thus be a challenge.

It’s especially a challenge when the list of approved titles is a secret!

There is no information on the Bureau of Prisons’ website (www.bop.gov) on who chose the list of books, what the criteria for inclusion were, or what titles have been approved. When I inquired by telephone I was told that I would have to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act in order to find out which books are permitted (which I had already done). I was told that making the list publicly available on the website is “being considered.”

Wildmind regularly donates Buddhist books to prisons and we have no idea whether any of the books available to be are considered acceptable.

The heavy-handedness of the government coming up with lists of approved books is disturbingly Orwellian. The fact that the lists are not publicly available creates the double-bind that only charities can supply these books and yet charities are not told what books are allowed.

To send a message to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, visit this site.

At the very least the list of “approved titles” should be available for inspection by the public. But a broader issue is that of the peculiarity of the government coming up with lists of “approved titles” at all. A more sensible approach would be simply to ban all titles that advocate terrorism. That would no doubt be a very short list.

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