Inmates’ Access to Religious Books Threatened

From the government that brought you Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo…Not content with violating the Eighth Amendment, our prison system is taking aim at freedom of religion, too. reports on new federal regulations that would remove thousands of religious books from prison libraries:

From behind bars, many prisoners turn to religion to fill the void in their lives. Frequently, prisoners’ pursuits dovetail with the prison system’s goal of rehabilitating the convicts in its care; at the end of their incarcerations, if prisoners leave with a better understanding of right and wrong, so the thinking goes, they’ll be less likely to return in the future.

But that logic has come under fire recently by a federal rule change implemented in May limiting prison libraries under the domain of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons from carrying no more than 150 titles dealing with any single religion.

The new policy, while rooted in a desire to prevent religiously-motivated militancy from taking hold in federal penitentiaries, has struck some – particularly Jewish prisoners and officials with the Chabad-Lubavitch Aleph Institute – as odd, considering that many traditional Jewish texts like Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah legal code are now off limits. The rule is being challenged by Jewish, Christian and Muslim prisoners in a class-action law suit.

“Inmates in prison are searching for a sense of spirituality; they are looking to adjust their lives,” said Ron, who spent the past two years and seven months as an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo, Miss. As with all of the other prisoners and former prisoners interviewed for this story, Ron requested that his last name not be used.

“Inmates are looking to help themselves and search for ways to rehabilitate,” he added. “Most people on the outside do not hear the cries for help from inmates. Many have very little family contact, [and] there is an atmosphere of hopelessness.”

Surprisingly, according to Ron, who was the leader of his prison’s makeshift Jewish community, most prisons are not built with rehabilitation in mind. With the exception of the odd meager job, inmates could, if they so desired, sit around and do nothing all day. Some take the time to plot future crimes or harbor resentment at a system they blame for keeping them incarcerated, he asserted.

Prisoners’ constitutional rights are more limited than those of ordinary citizens, for security reasons, but even so, the regulation should not withstand a constitutional challenge, assuming that the judges obey precedent rather than politics. I would actually argue this as an Establishment Clause issue, not only a Free Exercise issue.

A good case can be made that the regulation fails the second and third prongs of the Supreme Court’s test for Establishment Clause violations in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): it is not neutral between religious and secular content (treating religious literature differently from other books that potentially contain extremist political ideas), and it creates excessive governmental entanglement with religion (determining what sect a book is assigned to — e.g. are you going to have 150 Protestant and 150 Catholic books, or just 150 Christian books? if the latter, how do you allocate that quota among 1,000+ denominations?).

I don’t discount the danger of radical Islam spreading in a disaffected prison population, but an overbroad crackdown on all forms of “religion” sacrifices one of the very freedoms that we are fighting for.

Meanwhile, readers, clean out your basements and donate your old books and literary journals to your local prison library. And I mean good books, not just drugstore paperbacks. Prisoners are looking for something of substance to fill their days. I might pick jihadism over Jackie Collins if those were the only two options on the shelf.

5 comments on “Inmates’ Access to Religious Books Threatened

  1. Barbara says:

    Inmates’ Access to Religious Books Threatened – Great Story. Aug.17 I did a story about, books to prisoners,on my blog “Barbara’s Journey Toward”. More stories like yours need to be heard.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for the great advocacy you do on your blog. I’ve added you and the Books To Prisoners charity to my sidebar.

    Readers who are interested in prison reform and anti-death-penalty work, go check out Barbara’s website and her excellent blogroll!

  3. Thank you. I think your blog is wonderful, great job. I will bookmark it and read it often. I will also go out and buy your book, “A Talent for Sadness”. I wish you much success with it.

  4. zhenimsja says:

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