By NEELA BANERJEE
WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 — Facing pressure from religious groups, civil libertarians and members of Congress, the federal Bureau of Prisons has decided to return religious materials that had been purged from prison chapel libraries because they were not on the bureau’s lists of approved resources.
Critics Right and Left Protest Book Removals (September 21, 2007)
Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries (September 10, 2007)
After the details of the removal became widely known earlier this month, Republican lawmakers, liberal Christians and evangelical talk shows all criticized the government for creating a list of acceptable religious books.
The bureau has not abandoned the idea of creating such lists, Judi Simon Garrett, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. But rather than packing away everything while those lists were compiled, the religious materials would remain on the shelves, Ms. Garrett explained.
In an e-mail today, the bureau said: “In response to concerns expressed by members of several religious communities, the Bureau of Prisons has decided to alter its planned course of action with respect to the Chapel Library Project.
“The bureau will begin immediately to return to chapel libraries materials that were removed in June 2007, with the exception of any publications that have been found to be inappropriate, such as material that could be radicalizing or incite violence. The review of all materials in chapel libraries will be completed by the end of January 2008.”
Only a week ago the bureau said it was not reconsidering the library policy. But critics of the bureau’s program said it appeared that the bureau had bowed to widespread outrage.
“Certainly putting the books back on the shelves is a major victory, and it shows the outcry from all over the country was heard,” said Moses Silverman, a lawyer for three prisoners who are suing the bureau over the program. “But regarding what they do after they put them back, I’m concerned.”
The bureau originally set out to take an inventory of all materials in its chapel libraries in an effort to weed about books that might incite violence. But the list grew to the tens of thousands, and the bureau decided instead to compile lists of acceptable materials in a plan called the Standardized Chapel Library Project. The plan identifies about 150 items for each of 20 religions or religious categories.
In the spring, prison chaplains were told to remove all materials not on the lists and put them in storage. The bureau said it planned to issue additions to the lists once a year. In some cases, chaplains packed up libraries with thousands of books collected over decades. Unidentified religious experts helped the bureau shape the lists of acceptable materials, which independent scholars said omitted many important religious texts.
Ms. Garrett declined to elaborate on how the re-stocking of the prison libraries is progressing. She said the effort “is beginning immediately,” but she would not say when it would be completed, which titles are being kept off the shelves and the specific criteria being used in such decisions.
Bob Moore, director of prison policy oversight at Aleph, an advocacy group for Jews in prison, said the lack of detail and transparency about how the lists are determined continued to trouble him.
“This is a positive step: it means they are not throwing the baby out with the bath water,” he said of keeping books on the shelves for now. “But our position is there should not be a list of what should be on the shelves, but what shouldn’t be.”
Mr. Silverman said he had not yet spoken to the bureau, and the bureau has not posted its change in any public forum. The return of the books would “go a long way,” he said, to resolving the lawsuit. But he added, “I remain concerned that the criteria for returning the books will be constitutional and lawful.”