Thursday, September 27, 2007

Keep them stupid and happy; religious censorship in prison libraries

The New York Times' Neela Banerjee covers the recent machinations at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in their drive to create a safe-list of reading resources.

[A]fter a 2004 Department of Justice report mentioned that religious books that incite violence could infiltrate chapel libraries[, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began pulling religious books that were not pre-approved off the shelves of prison libraries].

After the details of the removal became widely known this month, Republican lawmakers, liberal Christians and evangelical talk shows all criticized the government for creating a list of acceptable religious books.

The bureau has not abandoned the idea of creating such lists... But rather than packing away everything while those lists were compiled, the religious materials will remain on the shelves [until a final decision is reached]....

“The bureau will begin immediately to return to chapel libraries materials that were removed in June 2007, with the exception of any publications that have been found to be inappropriate, such as material that could be radicalizing or incite violence. The review of all materials in chapel libraries will be completed by the end of January 2008.”...

The bureau originally set out to take an inventory of all materials in its chapel libraries to weed out books that might incite violence. But the list grew to the tens of thousands, and the bureau decided instead to compile lists of acceptable materials in a plan called the Standardized Chapel Library Project. The plan identifies about 150 items for each of 20 religions or religious categories. |Prisons to Restore Purged Religious Books - NYT|
This article brings several issues to mind immediately.

First, I understand the mission of the Bureau of Prisons (BoP) to defuse violence and anarchy whenever possible. The BoP did, at least, make an attempt to provide some coverage of approved religions and 150 books is not an unreasonable number.

But they had to know that this entire project would be controversial and any list of approved texts is going to meet with acrimony. The Old Testament, for instance, is not a mild-mannered book... but I presume that it is allowed to stay.

Second, I wonder about the very premise that inmates are made violent by what they read. Knowledge often has a profound effect on people and it is certainly true that books could cause people to react violently... but my suspicion is that most people get to prison by having violent tendencies and not being hard-core readers.

Since religious thought is so fundamental to how people live their lives, anytime a government tries to restrict religious freedom, they are treading on thin ice.

As a librarian, I don't generally support censorship, but there are some items that I feel ought to be restricted because the items are strictly instrumental in committing criminal activities.

The most clear-cut cases (to my mind) are items like the Anarchist's Cookbook with instructions for pipe-bombs and home-made napalm.

Those are the easy cases, so I am not totally opposed to all censorship. But I think there must be a compelling reason to invoke the draconian remedy of censorship and the censorship should be narrowly tailored to meet the objectives of the government or institution imposing the ban.

As my friend Ayne frequently reminds me:

A circulating library in a town is an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge.

-Richard Brinsley Sherrian

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