Prisons ban some religious books; inmates file lawsuit
By Larry Neumeister
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK — Inmates at the federal prison camp in Otisville, N.Y., were stunned by what they saw at the chapel library on Memorial Day — hundreds of books had disappeared from the shelves.
The removal of the books is occurring nationwide, part of a long-delayed, post-Sept. 11 federal directive intended to prevent radical religious texts, specifically Islamic ones, from falling into the hands of violent inmates.
Three inmates at Otisville filed a lawsuit over the policy, saying their constitutional rights were violated. They say all religions were affected.
“The set of books that have been taken out have been ones that we used to minister to new converts when they come in here,” inmate John Okon, speaking on behalf of the prison’s Christian population, told a judge last week.
Okon said it was unfortunate because “I have really seen religion turn around the life of some of these men, especially in the Christian community.”
The government maintains that that the new rules don’t entirely clear the shelves of prison chapel libraries.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Feldman told U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain that prison libraries limit the number of books for each religion to between 100 and 150 under the new rules. He said officials would expand the number after choosing a new list of permitted books.
Feldman said the removal order stemmed from an April 2004 Department of Justice review of the way prisons choose Muslim religious services providers. It is not exactly clear why it took so long for the order to be put into effect, but prison officials said they needed time to examine a long list of books.
Feldman said the study was made out of a concern that prisons “had been radicalized by inmates who were practicing or espousing various extreme forms of religion, specifically Islam, which exposed security risks to the prisons and beyond the prisons to the public at large.”
More supervision recommended
Feldman said the review by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons concluded that prison chapel libraries were not adequately supervised.
“The presence of extremist chaplains, contractors or volunteers in the BOP’s correctional facilities can pose a threat to institutional security and could implicate national security if inmates are encouraged to commit terrorist acts against the United States,” the bureau’s report said.
The review suggested audio and video monitoring of worship areas and chapel classrooms and screening of religious service providers. It also recommended that prisons reduce inmate-led religious services and consider constant staff monitoring of inmate-led services.
The judge said the lawsuit might be premature because the inmates had not yet followed prison administrative complaint procedures. She declined to block the book removals, the remedy sought by the lawsuit.
Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer, said there might be limits to relief the prisoners can seek because prisoners’ First Amendment rights are severely limited.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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