No intellectual freedom in U.S. prison chapel libraries
The New York Tims has a story dated yesterday about a change dictated from the top in the libraries of U.S. Federal Prisons, called the “Standardized Chapel Library Project.” With the rationale of preventing violent religious extremism among prisoners, religious books in Federal prison libraries will now be a standardized collection – 150 books for each library, following a list of approved titles selected by “religious experts.”
According to a range of religious scholars interviewed by the Times, the list of 150 titles is odd. Among its ideosyncracies are that where Christianity is concerned it is heavy on Calvinism and Evangelicalism, leaving out liberal theologians and writings representing major Protestant denominations (no books by Karl Barth or Reinhold Niebuhr); where Judaism is concerned it is mostly books published by a single Orthodox publishing house, and three-quarters of the Jewish books at a prison in Otisville, NY were removed from the shelves based on the new list. Several inmates at Otisville have filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the Standardized Chapel Library Project violates their first amendment rights.
Some people are thinking: “It’s prison, people are supposed to lose their rights.” I have two responses. First, it is easy to think this way until you are put in prison yourself, which I am afraid can happen all too easily in a country that puts a higher percentage of its people in prison than any other, and where social policies become progressively more punitive and more and more based on irrational fear with each decade. Second, prisoners are entitled to basic human rights, even if there are legal rights that they can be expected to lose. The freedom to read is a basic human right. And at the risk of offending some of my atheist colleagues, I think that theological study, while I wouldn’t say it deserves special protection in prison libraries versus other literature, is something that for many prisoners represents an essential tool for coping with imprisonment and for dealing with a violent past. Many prisoners become serious students of theology. Cutting them off from the literature they need for these studies seems more like sadism than a reasonable kind of punishment, especially since it goes against rehabilitation. And given what is on and what is off of the list, the government’s rationale of preventing terrorism can’t be taken very seriously.