Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Restrictions on religious publications considered

By Jamie Loo
Federal prisoners may lose access to religious materials under proposed rule

By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is considering a new rule that could severely limit what religious publications inmates have access to, according to the proposal’s opponents.

The chapel library materials rule would exclude materials that “could incite, promote, or otherwise suggest the commission of violence or criminal activity” from prison chapel libraries. This includes any materials which advocate or foster “violence, vengeance, or hatred toward particular religious, racial, or ethnic groups” or that urge “the overthrow or destruction of the United States.”

Bureau of Prisons spokesperson, Traci Billingsley, said the rule’s intent is to clarify the requirements in the Second Chance Act of 2007 and to notify inmates that certain materials could be excluded from chapel libraries. The Second Chance Act, which authorizes funding for prisoner re-entry services and programs to reduce recidivism, allows the Bureau of Prisons to restrict materials “that seek to incite, promote or otherwise suggest the commission of violence or criminal activity.”

In its proposal, the Bureau of prisons says that the rule addresses concerns raised in a 2004 report from the Office of the Inspector General. The report indicated that prisons could become recruitment sites for militant Islamic terrorist groups and other religious groups, and provided recommendations to prevent this from happening.

The Bureau of Prisons argues that they “must ensure that materials provided to inmates will not promote violence or criminal activity, thereby endangering the safety, security, and good order of Bureau facilities, and the protection of the public.”

“The rule only applies to library materials and not materials purchased by inmates for their personal property,” Billingsley said.

But opponents say the language creates a broad and overreaching policy that would prevent inmates from having major religious texts, and violate their constitutional right to practice religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union along with several religious groups have filed formal opposition to the chapel library materials rule because they say it would allow federal prison administration to ban religious material that is protected in the Second Chance Act.

Banning the Bible?

David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said the proposal’s wording is dangerous because it uses the words “could…suggest” violent or criminal activity instead of “seek,” which is in the language of the Second Chance Act.

In its formal opposition, the ACLU pointed out violent passages in the Bible such as “then you should bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones,” and the Quran, “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet…” Shapiro said under the Bureau of Prisons proposal, entire publications that don’t seek to incite or promote violence might be banned because they could theoretically suggest it.

“These are religious texts that are core to people’s religious expression,” Shapiro said.

The ACLU also noted that Martin Luther King Jr.,’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; could be banned under this rule because of passages such as: “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws…I would agree with St. Augustine that an ‘unjust law is no law at all.’”

Billingsley said although the Bureau recognizes inmates’ access to religious materials is important the Bureau of Prisons must comply with the requirements in the Second Chance Act.

This isn’t the first time the Bureau of Prisons has tried to place restrictions on chapel libraries. Several years ago, the Bureau used the 2004 inspector general’s report to create the Standardized Chapel Library Project, a list of pre-approved religious materials. In the spring of 2007, chaplains and prison staff began removing content from chapel libraries that were not on the list. The program was discontinued and the materials returned after public outcry from religious and civil liberties groups, and members of Congress.

Martin Garnar, chair of the American Library Association’s Information Freedom Committee, said the proposed chapel library materials rule seems like “a clear violation of the First Amendment and suppression of religion.” The ALA is supporting the ACLU and other groups in their opposition. Garnar said the ALA wants some safeguards in the wording so that inmates are not prevented from having access to religious materials.

The ALA’s formal comments also pointed out that work “perceived” to encourage an overthrow or destruction of the U.S. government is not in the Second Chance Act and that it “strikes at core political speech protected by the First Amendment, which protects the freedom to criticize the government, even to the point of saying that the government should not exist.”

Current policies

The policies and restrictions on what inmates can access through libraries or receive in the mail are different depending on the jurisdiction and type of facility. Mail in prisons is monitored by prison staff.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has policies based on the facility’s level of security. Wardens in federal facilities can only reject a publication if “it is detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution or if it might facilitate criminal activity.” For example, publications with instructions on how to make bombs or weapons, manufacturing drugs or alcohol, or encourages criminal activity are prohibited. The Bureau’s policy also says that a warden cannot make a banned publications list, and must review a publication prior to rejection.

Januari Smith, Illinois Department of Corrections spokesperson said the state doesn’t have a general policy for publications. She said each facility has its own publication review committee that decides what is allowed and what isn’t allowed in facilities. She said the standards can vary based on the prison’s security level, and committees tend to use general guidelines such as excluding pornographic material or materials that may incite violence.

Other reading restrictions

The types of libraries available in correctional facilities vary from recreational use libraries, to chapel and law libraries. Although it doesn’t appear that prisons keep a banned titles list, inmates face other challenges accessing library materials.

Shaena Fazal, director of the John Howard Association of Illinois’ Long Term Prisoner Policy Project, said prison libraries have diverse collections ranging from romance novels to science-fiction books. The John Howard Association is a group of volunteers and staff that provide oversight of correctional facilities through visits and information dissemination. Garnar said legal materials, especially those on the topic of appeals, and educational materials are also popular in prison libraries. Fazal and Garnar said most prison library materials are old and out of date because the libraries are not well funded and rely on donations from the outside world or from inmates. They said the books tend to be old paperbacks because many prisons prohibit hard cover books. Based on her experience with Illinois jails and prisons, Fazal said some facilities prohibit the hard cover books because of fear that shanks or other weapons can be hidden in the bindings.

With the lack of funding and demand for books, many prisoner book programs have been created to meet the need. The Prison Book Program, based in Quincy, Mass., receives book requests from inmates and sends them donated books. The program serves all but five states.

Prison Book Program treasurer, Eric Goossens, said they receive 200 book requests a week and sent out 5,510 book packages in 2008. Dictionaries are their number one request, he said, and inmates also frequently ask for ethnic history books, GED books and self-help books. As a policy, the Prison Book Program will not send books on crime or books that promote discrimination.

Goossens said he isn’t aware of any specific titles that have been banned but some prisons won’t allow certain categories such as current events, politics, or books that teach a trade such as auto mechanics or carpentry. Sometimes a picture on a book cover will trigger a rejection.

“If it’s a Western with a guy carrying a shotgun, it can’t get in (some prisons),” he said.

Goossens said American Sign Language books have also been rejected, which they’ve speculated is so that gang members can’t communicate with each other in prison. He said one Kansas prison doesn’t allow books that teach a foreign language, which may also have to do with keeping inmates from communicating.

Book rejections are pretty rare, and usually occur because an inmate has been transferred or released, Goossens said. When books are sent back, he said the prisons normally don’t give their reasons aside from prohibiting certain categories. In the John Howard Association’s book club experience, Fazal said she only remembers one book that was rejected. Fazal said several years ago, a jail warden wouldn’t let them send a biography of Che Guevara to an inmate. Shapiro said some inmates have trouble receiving Prison Legal News, a magazine on prisoner’s rights and prison legal issues.

Last year, a federal super maximum security prison in Florence, Colo., denied an inmate’s two requests for President Barack Obama’s books, “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” The prisoner, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, is serving time for plotting to assassinate President George W. Bush. Prison officials determined that passages in both books contained information that could damage national security, according to media reports. The Bureau of Prisons later granted Ali’s request.

Goossens said some states, such as Michigan, only allow materials sent directly from publishers. He said they’re also starting to see more prisons that will only accept new books. The poor condition of used books or dust in old books, which could cause allergies, have been cited as reasons for the policy. Goossens said it’s possible that the new books policy is a control issue, which may deter people from sending books. The mailroom staff at prisons has to process all of this mail, he said, and less books means less work for this staff. Shapiro said sometimes it comes down to who is in the mailroom and what one staff member feels “poses a security threat that somehow justifies censorship.”

Goossens said the Prison Book Program doesn’t help stock prison libraries and they often hear from prison librarians with little, or zero funding to buy new material for their libraries. He said it’s frustrating because prison library funding should be an important part of the facility’s budget. Access to good libraries means that prisoners can educate themselves to become more productive members of society upon their release, Goossens said, and hopefully not return to the prison system.

Garnar echoed Goossens, and said with restricted access to the phone, Internet and other forms of communication, prison libraries are one of the few ways that prisoners can connect with the outside world. One of the challenges is that because prisoners lose many of their rights as incarcerated individuals, Garnar said it’s not always clear what their reading rights are. He said the ALA is in the process of working on a more comprehensive statement that addresses the issues prison libraries face.

“We know there are challenges and we want to support prison librarians, and inmates to have access to information that they’re legally allowed to have,” Garnar said.

SIDEBAR: Prison censorship

Prisoners face constitutional rights issues beyond the publications they can receive. David Shapiro, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said they’re currently litigating a case in Virginia where a mother’s letter to her incarcerated son was heavily redacted because it contained Bible passages. Many ACLU chapters are also involved in pen pal service litigation, Shapiro said. He said pen pal service programs, which connect inmates with pen pals, are banned in some prisons.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a ban on face-to-face media interviews by death row inmates. Attorney General John Ashcroft created the policy after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh did an interview with “60 Minutes” in 2000 because Ashcroft didn’t want to see criminals like McVeigh irresponsibly glamorized in the media. The court found that the equal protection guarantee in the constitution doesn’t entitle all federal prisoners to the same treatment. In the decision, Judge Frank H. Easterbrook cited U.S. Supreme Court precedents in two cases where the justices found that “the principal reason for limiting press contacts is the maintenance of security; this implies that the greater need for security at a given prison (or unit within a prison), the easier it is to justify limits on meetings between reporters and prisoners.”

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case from a Pennsylvania inmate whose prison discontinued a music program after it was highlighted in a VH-1 documentary series. Graterford State Prison had music program that allowed inmates to play in bands. After VH-1’s documentaries on prison bands aired in Oct. 2002, Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweitzer ordered the elimination of the program. Richard Glenn Young, an inmate who played in the prison band, took the case to court arguing that it was a violation of prisoners’ rights to free expression. Lower district courts found that the program was legitimately shut down because of safety and security concerns regarding inmate supervision.

--Report compiled with help from the Associated Press

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at