Civil Liberties Freedom of Information Prison Prison Policy

The Great Prison Book Purge – UPDATED


Earlier this month it came to light
that, since June of this year, US Federal prison authorities had been quietly directing chaplains nationwide to get rid of thousands of the religious books that prisoners had been reading. Everything that wasn’t on a brand new list of “approved” religious books was ordered tossed out by the Bureau of Prisons.

Here’s how the Bureau’s report explained it: “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.”

(Extremist chaplains???)

According to today’s New New York Times it appears that, after civil libertarians
, religious groups and members of congress collectively flipped out, the BOP relented a little.

But, first, to give you a fuller picture of the idiocy of this book purging plan, here’s a bit of backstory from an earlier NY Times article about the banning:

The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons
to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.

The BOP’s stated purpose was to get rid of books that might incite to violence. Yet, instead of simply removing the few objectionable volumes, Federal prison officials, in their infinite wisdom, began making lists of “acceptable” books, which arbitrarily left thousands of important and classic volumes out of the new catalog of those approved.

“It’s swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, a Christian group. “There’s no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism.”

Jewish inmates in some prisons said that even the Torah was removed.

(Prison chaplains were particularly irritated because they say they already routinely got rid of any books that were too extreme.)

This week, although prison officials agreed to put the books back for the time being, they have said they aren’t abandoning the strategy. (sigh.)



Two New York prisoners
filed a lawsuit last month against the what the BOP has (absurdly) named “The Chapel Library Project.”

Among the books banned at their prison were “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, and “The Purpose-Driven Life” by the Rev. Rick Warren, the lawsuit said.

But even more sadly
predictable is this (reported by the AP):

The Muslim portion of the chapel library
has been reduced to the Quran and two other titles after the removal of prayer books, prayer guides and the Hadith, the most important source for Muslim practice and faith after the Quran, the lawsuit says.

Well, in fairness, although that might have been true for one New York prison, the nationwide list for Islam is a little longer that that. (You can take a look for yourself here.)

But, the problem with the Islamic list can be easily illustrated by its treatment of the 13th century Sufi poet, Jalal Al-Din Rumi. There is, indeed, one Rumi volume on the list, the Colman Barks translated, “Essential Rumi.” And there is also a book and film about Rumi. But that’s it. For instance, in a truly bizarre omission, there is no allowed Rumi book published in the original Persian.

Even on my own home book shelves, I have four books of Rumi’s poetry. According to the Bureau of Prisons, three of those ultra dangerous volumes would be banned—a good thing, of course, since they include obviously anarchic sentiments like these:

Find the real world, give it endlessly away.
Grow rich, fling gold to all who ask.
Live at the empty heart of Paradox.
I’ll dance there with you, cheek to cheek.

– Rumi


  • Celeste writes … The BOP’s stated purpose was to get rid of books that might insight to violence.

    Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
    “Whenever we read … the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize humankind. And, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

    Genesis – 19:24
    God kills everyone (men, women, children, infants, newborns) in Sodom and Gomorrah by raining “fire and brimstone from the Lord out of heaven.” Well, almost everyone — he spares the “just and righteous” Lot and his family.

  • I’d sure like to know what books were deemed an incitment to violence. Wouldn’t you? Wonder if any of them were originally written in Arabic?

  • LA Resident, I am at best agnostic, and more likely atheistic, but I have added a book to my reading list. James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible is reviewd by the NY Times here: Of course, my bias is that science and religon are not antagonistic to one another. That bias is likely an artifact of my long ago Roman Catholic upbringing. If I were to convert to anything, I suspect I would become a Jubu.

  • S’okay. I’ve figured out how to prompt myself to close tags, but in the process, have failed to invoke the spell check function in the browser’s composer window. One of these days… *sigh*

  • Listener, I will look at the Amazon reviews for Kugel’s book and also see if they have a used/cheap copy.

    Your comment “That bias is likely an artifact of my long ago Roman Catholic upbringing.” makes me laugh because I was “forcibly” raised as a Roman Catholic by my mother and Rosary-bead wearing, god-mother and aunts. I still remember being “forced” to attend catechism classes during my school summer vacation. This and the long boring masses would make any kid to denounce Catholicism. Every now and then I still have nightmares involving all the Virgin de Guadalupe pictures and statues from my grandmother’s house and forced feelings of Catholic Guilt. (lol)

    The last time I was “Catholic” was back in 1978 when I had to baptize my nephew, now I am somewhere between a deist (hence Thomas Paine ref.) and agnostic, depending on who asks and how much I wish to offend them.

    I just saw another book I want to read and will also recommend to my “favorite” conservative Bush loyalist (Woody). The book is John Dean – Broken Government.,,9780670018208,00.html


  • This comes from all the same liberal nonsense thinking process that everyone has to be equal and that if we have a problem with one person then we have to make bans for everyone. So, if we have to get rid of some books, let’s dump most of them to be fair.

  • Very cool book recommendation, Listener. I’m going to get it. (Hey, apart from its religious significance, the Bible is an essential part of the western literary cannon.)

    RLC…at your prompting, I added a little updated section on the issue of Islamic books.

    LA Res, Good rec too. I always enjoy John Dean’s writing.

  • LA Resident, I had to smile at your characterization of your faith-ful upbringing. I had this very secular childhood and educational experience right up until my parents enrolled me in a Catholic high school. Not too many places a kid could have Oxford Scholars for math and Rhodes Scholars for science. Fortunately, classes in religion looked a lot more like philosophy than anything else. Of course I wouldn’t know that until I tangled with philosophy in college. Although I fought the ‘rents tooth and nail to stay with my secular cohort, I have to admit, in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was a priceless high school education.

  • Two nights ago I ran into a friend who was on his way to a Gideons jail ministry. They conduct these classes/services twice a month at the local jail, and he told me about the interest and participation from the prisoners and the lives that have been helped by it. Now, I guess that someone will come up with the great idea that they cannot conduct a Christian ministry unless every other religion gets its shot, too. It’s just political correctness that comes up with such stupid ideas.

  • Woody, from you list of recommend books I see your a fan of Ann Coulter, here is a little information on your patriot and her opinion of war veterans.

    Coulter’s relationship with MSNBC ended permanently after she tangled with a disabled Vietnam veteran on the air. Robert Muller, co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, asserted that “in 90 percent of the cases that U.S. soldiers got blown up [in Vietnam] — Ann, are you listening? — they were our own mines.” (Muller was paraphrasing a 1969 Pentagon report that found that 90 percent of the components used in enemy mines came from U.S. duds and refuse.) Coulter averted her eyes and responded sarcastically: “No wonder you guys lost.”

    Ann Coulter is about as smart as you Woody, who also compares WW-II to the war in Iraq. Most American who oppose the war in Iraq are not anti-troops or support terrorists, we are anti-stupid Presidents who start wars they cannot end and do not understand. Remember the Bozo Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln back in 2003.

    This year’s Democratic plan for the future is another inane sound bite designed to trick American voters into trusting them with national security. To wit, they’re claiming there is no connection between the war on terror and the war in Iraq, and while they’re all for the war against terror — absolutely in favor of that war — they are adamantly opposed to the Iraq war. You know, the war where the U.S. military is killing thousands upon thousands of terrorists (described in the media as “Iraqi civilians”, even if they are from Jordan, like the now-dead leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). That war. As Howard Dean put it this week, “The occupation in Iraq is costing American lives and hampering our ability to fight the real global war on terror.” This would be like complaining that Roosevelt’s war in Germany was hampering our ability to fight the real global war on fascism.

  • I almost forgot I would like a to see a big overweight liberal female to throw a pie into Ann Coulter’s face and then kick her ass for being so rude and obnoxious. I don’t remember which Bible verse that is from, but I’m sure it has to exist, or maybe it’s in the Koran

  • Listener, another religious eye-opening experience happened when I was about 16-17 years old and a black friend invited me to his church on the other side of town. I said “Wow” the Black Baptists really know how to party and have fun. That was the first time I looked into or became familiar with other religions.

  • Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi organizations suspected by the U.S. government of being closely linked to terror financing activities, dominate Muslim prison recruitment in the U.S. and seek to create a radicalized cadre of felons who will support their anti-American efforts. Due to their efforts, the population of Muslim inmates has reached approximately 350,000 (in 2003) with 30,000-40,000 added each year. These converted inmates are mostly African American with a small but growing Hispanic minority.

  • Thanks for the follow up, Celeste. I would have taken the pull-quote at face value and not followed the link since Pokey tends to be skilled at finding reliable information on the web. In terms of the radicalization of inmates, it seems the system itself is as likely to incubate domestic terrorists as prison chaplains are to foment Saudi sponsored terrorists. If memory serves, Elijah Muhammad was an influential leader in the African American community back in the 70’s, which is long before the terrorist concerns evolving from 9/11.

    No need for that Ann Coulter fantasy LA Resident. If one is patient, often these folks are quite capable of going face-first in the pie themselves. Witness Rush Limbaugh’s recent condemnation of “phony soldiers,” that is, those currently serving/formerly serving soldiers who think we ought to leave Iraq. Media Matters has the story here:

  • Yep, Pokey is a champ at researching, which is why I looked because this time the numbers struck me as wa-a-a–aay out of whack.

    LA Res, I think Listener’s right, although the pie fantasy still has a lot of merit.

  • LAR: Ann Coulter is about as smart as you Woody.

    I would say that she’s a lot smarter. Just because you don’t like someone and how she argues a point is no reason to assume that she isn’t smart and right.

    I can pick out many stupid, out of context, and uncharacteristic quotes from liberals (many more), if that is your sole guide as to whether or not their views are worth considering.

    Consider and address the justifications of a person’s overall positions rather than try to pick on side issues.

  • Within prisons, radical extremist groups of all sorts pose legitimate security risks. Groups tend to proliferate ideologies that promote unrest, turmoil, the overthrow of the Government, and terrorism.

    Richard Reid, who was convicted of attempting to blow up an American Airlines flight using explosives in his shoe, and Jose Padilla, who was arrested for his attempted detonation of a dirty bomb, were both radicalized in prisons..

    “Al Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America’s prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be disenchanted with their country’s policies.”

    Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once commented that “Of course, the United States doesn’t have a political policy towards Islam”. However, this is no longer the case. Government officials are now concerned that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups which espouse extremist ideological views may employ religion as a means to proliferate their radical views to other prisoners. This use of religion threatens both prison security and national security.

    In the United States, there are approximately 350,000 Muslim inmates in federal, state, and local prisons combined. The population of Muslim inmates is growing at a rate of 30,000 to 40,000 annually. The majority of these inmates entered as non-Muslims, and approximately 80% of prisoners searching for a faith tend to convert to Islam.

  • I would say that she’s a lot smarter. Just because you don’t like someone and how she argues a point is no reason to assume that she isn’t smart and right.


    Ok Woody, I will re-phrase my comment,Ann Coulter may be smart as measured by an I.Q. test, but she is an idiot, rude and obnoxious.

    And she dead wrong comparing WW-II to the war in Iraq, as she did. And anybody who believes that is an idiot. I am absolutely sure no historian or American General will ever compare the two wars as she did. In addition anybody who purposely insults an injured war veteran in the matter as she did is an idiot. I am surprise you would defend somebody who insults our injured war veterans. I find it disgusting when somebody does that, don’t you?

  • Ms. Fremon, there is more to this story than what your reading. The Christian and Jewish bibles will all be given back in good time. CDC has seen Muslim interpretation with coded anti-american promoting Jihad on American Citizens. This has been going on for a while under the cover of Muslim titles. THey are even shipped from accross the sea to our inmates. DIg a bit deeper.

  • Celeste – I for one am firmly in favor of yanking any and all Al Qaeda training manuals from prison chapels, I don’t care what anybody says.

    Prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brother Hood and Black Guerilla Family may use many well know books as “training manuals”. The Mexican Mafia may use books on Aztec Cultural as a “training manual” to instill pride and a warrior mentality in its members. Also books on Leninism, Marxist theory, Maoist theory are used as “training manuals” by prison gangs. If the “Man” has your ass locked up for 20 to life it’s not very hard for the smarter well read prisoners to adopt and teach any of these theories.

    I doubt the prison gangs have books titled “Black Guerilla Family- for Dummies”, “Mexican Mafia Manual”, etc. So here is where the problem lies who gets to decide which books are used as part of the prison gang required reading list and should be banned.

    I heard that Louis L’Amour cowboy books are pretty popular among older prisoners, I would let them keep Louis L’Amour books in prison libraries.

  • LAR, being an injured war veteran doesn’t automatically provide a person immunity from criticism for anything and everything that he does and says for the rest of his life. Do you think it should?

    I don’t know what veteran you are referencing, but I’m guessing that it’s our former Senator from Georgia, Stumpy, who lost his seat because he put the interests of the Democratic Party over those of the people in Georgia, whom he was supposed to represent. I guess that I can rule out John Kerry, who didn’t really have any injuries, as he is not willing to document them to the American public by signing Form 180.

    On the topic of this post, any terrorist group can put out manuals and falsely title them as religious books. Even courts, especially liberally activist ones, tend to think that anything other than Christianity should be given a wide berth. That make reasonable accomondations for prisoners more difficult for the prison authorities.

  • Woody says — I don’t know what veteran you are referencing, but I’m guessing that it’s our former Senator from Georgia, Stumpy.

    I don’t doubt you know what veteran I’m talking about, but you still shoot out a knee-jerk response? Woody – read my first comment about you buddy Ann Coulter(3:53) I specifically mentioned her interview with Robert Muller, co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The brave American patriot and war veteran was talking about the specific issue of land mines.

    But I guess Ann Coulter gets a free-pass to be anti-troops and insult brave soldiers doing jobs her Ivy League candy ass would never do. Support our brave soldiers and war veterans and NOT obnoxious writers trying to sell books !!!

  • LAR, no I didn’t realize who you meant, as I am not familiar with Muller and your link would have exceeded my reading quota.

    Look, Coulter is an entertainer more than a political pundit. She’s going to say some crazy things and it helps her sell books. Believe me, there are many worse people from the left wanting Bush and Cheney killed.

    I do have to laugh, though, when someone from the left tells me to support the troops.

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