- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Bureau of Prisons is indefensibly coy about its recent dismantling of prison libraries, where venerable religious materials have been tossed from shelves in an extreme reaction to a government report intended to keep violent Islamic reading materials and recordings away from prisoners.

Thankfully, conservatives on Capitol Hill are now demanding answers from prison administrators, who are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in their attempt to prevent the cancer of Islamic fanaticism from spreading among the nation’s 1.5 million prison inmates. By removing religious materials from all denominations that don’t appear on an agency-created list of approved materials, prison officials are approaching a slippery slope.

Earlier this summer the Bureau of Prisons, an agency under the Justice Department, launched the Standardized Chapel Library Project, essentially a purging of prison book shelves as a way of satisfying recommendations from Justice’s Inspector General. The 2004 report pointed out flaws in the bureau’s system for screening books in prison libraries, a system which needed tightening in light of the terrorist attacks of September 11. It suggested that the bureau screen existing libraries and remove offending literature, keeping most other books intact though under a carefully catalogued system.

The prison bureau’s response instead was to dispose of all religious materials in prison libraries with the exception of 150 titles selected by a panel of unnamed bureaucrats. Untold religious authors have had their spiritual messages rejected, denied to a population which arguably could benefit from messages of hope and tolerance.

When asked by The Washington Times for the list of 150 religious titles, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman said the information must be formally requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The bureau would not provide the list of “experts” brought in to craft the list and has been reluctant to reveal the process and criteria used to select the titles that would either receive the bureau’s imprimatur or be rejected.

Congress is frustrated by this obstruction as well. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican and chairman of the 100-plus member Republican Study Committee, this week wrote to the director of the Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, demanding answers. The American public deserves them as well.

In pursuing the admirable goal of limiting materials that could incite violence or terrorism, prison officials are running the risk of restricting religious expression. Ironically, this sort of trend shares frightful similarities with the authoritarian philosophies they are seeking to uproot.

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