The Secret List of Approved Books

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 10, 2007 — 3 Comments

The New York Times weighs in on the growing controversy concerning a new policy set by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which tightly restricts approved religious titles to prison libraries.

“Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries. 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.”

This secret list (the BOP won’t release it to the public) claims that 20 religious categories (“from Bahaism to Yoruba”) have a list of “up to” (but in some cases, most likely less than) 150 approved titles. These titles have been selected by “chaplains and scholars” (but no list of these individuals has been released, either), in order to avoid works that “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.” Considering the huge gray areas in terms like “radicalize” or “disparage” it is unsurprising that the move has already sparked a class-action lawsuit and serious criticism.

“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. [Douglas] Laycock [professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School] said. “But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.”

In addition, according to religious scholars who have seen the list, the title selection is “inhibiting”, and favors “a bias toward evangelical popularism and Calvinism”. So naturally, one has to wonder what the book selections are for modern Pagan and Heathen religions. Which books were approved for Wicca? For Asatru? Which “experts” picked the books for these categories, and how many titles total are allowed in prison libraries? Have innocent non-extremist books been removed because they didn’t make the list?

“The bureau has not provided additional money to prisons to buy the books on the lists, so in some prisons, after the shelves were cleared of books not on the lists, few remained.”

No matter what your opinion concerning the rights of prisoners, this move seems completely misguided and almost designed to cause controversy and confusion amongst the religious organizations that provide chaplaincy services to inmates. I’ll be watching this story as it develops, and if I can I’ll try to find out the “approved” Pagan books. If you are a Pagan/Heathen working in the prison system, and have any information on removed books, please drop me a note by leaving a comment on this post, or sending me an e-mail.

Jason Pitzl-Waters