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

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org

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

BOP’s Failure to Adequately Respond to FOIA Request Prompts Letter to Department of Justice

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: www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/aclu-demand-documents-related-standard-chapel-library-project

A copy of the ACLU's comments on BOP's proposed rule is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison/restrict/39036res20090317.html

Additional information about the ACLU National Prison Project is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison

 

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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