Monday, September 10, 2007

Works of Congar, Dulles banned from U.S. prisons.

In today's New York Times, there's a story on a controversial new move by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to curb the spread of religious extremism behind bars by limiting the titles available in prison libraries to certain pre-approved texts:
Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, "discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize."

. . .

The Bureau of Prisons said it relied on experts to produce lists of up to 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources for each of 20 religions or religious categories - everything from Bahaism to Yoruba. The lists will be expanded in October, and there will be occasional updates, Ms. Billingsley said. Prayer books and other worship materials are not affected by this process.

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.
Also excluded from the list, according to a graphic included with the NYT story, is the great French Dominican theologian Yves Congar. Long under an ecclesiastical cloud for his innovative work, Congar was vindicated at the Second Vatican Council and died a Cardinal. Even so, Congar, Dulles and company are apparently radical enough in the eyes of the federal government to be kept out of prison libraries. Though I suppose there are studious and thoughtful convicts who would appreciate the opportunity to read Congar and Dulles - or, for that matter, Barth and Niebuhr - I suspect that many more prisoners will complain that they're being denied the consolation of reading the works of Robert Schuller than will fume over the banishment of Congar and Dulles.

Some inmates may take comfort in the words of Timothy Larsen, a Wheaton College professor quoted in the NYT article. Asked to comment on the list of "approved" religious texts for prison libraries, Larsen said, "I'm particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison, I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer." For my part, I agree with a legal scholar who opines in the article that the "[g]overnment does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons," but I'm not sure that the approach being taken is either an appropriate or an effective way to further that interest.

Instead of formulating an exclusive list of books that are allowed in prison libraries, the government might be better off compiling a list of books that are not allowed - anticipating, of course, the controversy that would arise over the inclusion of particular titles. If this approach were followed, the Federal Bureau of Prisons would be forced to articulate specific reasons why the people in its charge should be prohibited from reading particular books. If there's something in the writings of Yves Congar and Avery Dulles that would incite prisoners to riot, I'd be very curious to hear what it is. AMDG.


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