ACLU Demands Information About Bureau of Prisons Attempts to Ban Religious Material

November 12, 2009 12:29 pm

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today demanded that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) release all records in its possession related to attempts by prison officials to purge from federal prison chapel libraries any religious material arbitrarily deemed to be unacceptable.

The demand, articulated in a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy, follows the failure by BOP officials to adequately respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed last spring by a California graduate student writing a thesis on the censoring of religious materials in federal prisons.

“The refusal of prison officials to provide a full accounting of their rationale for banning religious material is just the latest example of an ongoing effort to secretly and unconstitutionally censor material they consider to be unacceptable,” said David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “To deny prisoners their constitutional right to access religious materials is bad enough. But to attempt to do so in a way that skirts transparency and prevents the public from knowing what they are doing is entirely unacceptable.”

In order to complete his master’s degree in religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, the student, Joshua C. Harris, is writing a thesis on the 2007 implementation of the Standardized Chapel Library Project (SCLP), which authorized BOP officials to purge from prison chapel libraries any material that was not on a list of “acceptable” publications that the libraries could maintain. Among those titles banned at the time were Maimonides’ “Code of Jewish Law.”

In order to obtain information about how it was decided what materials would be placed on the list of “acceptable” publications, what materials would be left off and who was charged with making those determinations, Harris filed a FOIA request in April asking for “any/all documents that detail the reasoning behind, and implementation of, the [SCLP].” The SCLP was a major undertaking that surely generated a substantial amount of records, but the BOP’s September response to Harris’ FOIA request included only four documents.

“The lack of information provided to me by BOP officials has certainly impeded my ability to complete my thesis, but that is only part of my concern,” Harris said. “My research is motivated by a general concern for the rights of prisoners, particularly their religious freedoms. Incarcerated populations are especially vulnerable to abuses of power, in part, because prisoner issues, such as the censorship of religious materials, are largely invisible to the public. I’m concerned that policies directly impacting federal prisoners are being devised and implemented without any public awareness or debate.”

The 2007 implementation of the SCLP sparked harsh criticism from lawmakers and religious leaders across a broad ideological spectrum and, in 2008, prompted Congress to pass a provision of the Second Chance Act that allows BOP officials to restrict only those materials “that seek to incite, promote or otherwise suggest the commission of violence or criminal activity” or “any other materials prohibited by any other law or regulation.” The Act explicitly forbids any further attempt “by whatever designation that seeks to restrict prisoners’ access to reading materials, audiotapes, videotapes or any other materials made available in a chapel library.”

Despite the existence of the Act, however, BOP earlier this year proposed a new rule that seeks to restrict prisoners’ access to materials in defiance of the law. The watered-down standard in the proposed rule would allow any book to be banned if it is determined that it “could…suggest” violence or criminal activity, regardless of whether there is any intent to cause violence or even a reasonable possibility that violence will result. Works such as the Bible, the Qur’an and Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” could be left vulnerable because, theoretically, they could suggest violence or criminal activity to a reader.

The proposed rule would also allow BOP to ban books that are seen as “advocating or fostering violence, vengeance or hatred toward particular religious, racial or ethnic groups” or books that are deemed to advocate “for the overthrow or destruction of the United States.”

In March, the ACLU filed formal comments with BOP’s Office of General Counsel opposing the proposed rule. The comments were signed by a diverse coalition of religious organizations including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the American Jewish Congress and Muslim Advocates. BOP has yet to decide whether it will implement the rule.

A copy of the ACLU’s demand letter sent today to the Department of Justice is available online at:

A copy of the ACLU’s comments on BOP’s proposed rule is available online at:

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at:

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