The war on terror has spread to America’s federal prisons — and Jewish inmates appear to have become unintended victims.
Fearful that some religious books — particularly those of Muslims — might promote “violence and radicalization,” the federal Bureau of Prisons has removed all but 150 books per religion from its prison chapels. As a result, Jewish inmates who have long had access to hundreds of Jewish books, complain that now even the Torah is denied to them.
Victoria, an inmate in the federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla., said the removal of the Jewish books was “like a knife into our hearts.” In a letter published last week by the Lubavitch Youth Organization in Florida, she wrote that she and other Jewish inmates asked the non-Jewish chaplain “why the most important books, such as a Torah and Tanach [the Bible] and others were removed.”
She said he “denied that the Torah or Tanach were in the inventory in the first place, when we — all the Jewish sisters — know that they were there.”
A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, Michael Truman, insisted in an e-mail that “both the Torah and the Bible are on the approved lists.”
But Solomon Klein, a lawyer for a Jewish inmate suing the Bureau of Prisons over this issue, said that just because a book appears on the approved list, “does not mean that these books are guaranteed to appear in every library. It simply means that these are the only books that will not be removed. So as a practical matter, a library that had 100 books to start with might end up with 10 books that are on the ‘book list.’” Although it is unclear if the Florida prison ever had the Bible or if it was removed in error, the federal suit claims that “commentary on the Bible” has been removed from chapel bookshelves.
There are about 5,000 Jewish inmates in federal prisons around the country, according to the ALEPH Institute, which runs prison programs and arranges rabbinic visitation for Jewish inmates.
The new rule follows release of a report last September by George Washington University and the University of Virginia that warned that American prisons had become a major breeding ground for Islamic terrorists.
Islamic extremists there are free to brainwash vulnerable inmates with distorted views of the Koran and other readings that urge radicalization and violence, it said.
“The U.S., with its large prison population, is at risk of facing the sort of homegrown terrorism currently plaguing other countries,” the study concluded. It added that among those who became radicalized while in prison was Richard Reid, the British “shoe bomber.”
Three inmates at the federal prison in upstate Otisville — a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim — have filed suit against the federal Bureau of Prisons seeking to reverse the policy after it was implemented there late last month. At a hearing May 31, the Jewish prisoner, Moshe Milstein, told Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Manhattan Federal Court that after learning of the new policy in March they requested but were denied permission to see a list of the approved books. He said about 600 Jewish books were removed from the shelves.
“There is no history of incitefulness [sic] or subversion in these books,” he said. “They have been here 10 years.”
Among the books removed, he said, are those written by Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholar; the Zohar, the classic book of Jewish mysticism; and Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
“It’s absurd that it shouldn’t be in a religious library,” Milstein told the court about Rabbi Kushner’s book. He added that the books removed from the shelves are now in the warehouse at the prison. And Milstein said that “if it was not for the intervention of a staff worker, the books would be discarded.”
But Truman, the Bureau of Prisons spokesman, said that as of June 1, “any books not listed on the standardized list were placed in storage until they can be reviewed for content, currency and condition by SMEs [subject matter experts].”
“As books are reviewed and certified as free of discrimination, violence and radicalization, the lists for each religion will be updated to incorporate additional books into the standard libraries,” he said. “Media that are determined to contain discriminatory, violent or radical material will be discarded.”
He denied assertions that there is a cap of 150 books, saying that more books will be added as they are reviewed and approved. At the end of the hearing, Swain encouraged Milstein to pursue administrative remedies at Otisville and asked both sides to address in writing the legal issues raised. She has yet to render a decision.
Truman noted that religious subject matter experts for each faith reviewed all chapel library holdings — print, audio and video media — for “content, currency and condition” and certified 150 books and 150 audio and video holdings for each religion. Klein, a lawyer for Milstein, insisted in an e-mail interview that his position is that “prisoners have the constitutional right to practice and learn about their religion. The bureau’s wholesale removal of books — including prayer books — violates these rights.”
“The books should be returned immediately,” he said, adding that he would encourage the bureau to “work with religious organizations to establish a reasonable policy that provides access to religious materials while protecting inmates from extremism. … The bureau has been aware of the need to inventory these books for years; there is no reason why this cannot be done while the books are in the library.”
Five Orthodox Jewish groups and the American Jewish Committee have all challenged the bureau’s handling of this issue. In a letter this week to Harley Lappin, the bureau’s director, the AJC’s general counsel, Jeffrey Sinensky claimed that to “arbitrarily cap the number of books available to inmates unjustifiably punishes those seeking both religious inspiration and texts that are essential for the proper observance of their faith.”
“We are eager to work with you and other organizations to devise more prudent procedures that would keep hate and violence out of prisons but continue to allow prisoners access to all appropriate religious works,” he wrote.
Chanoch Lubling, a lawyer for the five Orthodox groups, said that although the policy was slated to become effective June 1, the bureau has delayed implementation until Oct. 1 in order to “reassess the policy.”
In their own letter to Lappin, the five Orthodox groups said the bureau had overreacted. They said they had “no quarrel” with the bureau’s goal in reviewing books, but said the way it handled it is “excessive, going far beyond what is necessary to achieve these goals.” They said the bureau should have simply reviewed the books on chapel library shelves and removed those with objectionable content, rather than ban any book not on its approved list.
“Frankly, we are at a loss to understand why any religious book would be banned by an arbitrary cap if it is otherwise acceptable and contributes to the spiritual development of inmates seeking religious reading materials in a prison chapel library,” they wrote.
The five organizations signing the letter to Lappin were Agudath Israel of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Aleph Institute and the Rabbinical Council of America.