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Human Rights Watch Urges Federal Bureau of Prisons Not to Re-Institute Broad Ban of Religious Books

Letter to Harley Lappin, Director of the US Federal Bureau of Prisons

Earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons removed a large portion of religious materials from prison chapel libraries, limiting the number of approved texts and books to 150 per denomination. The removal of these texts, and the opaque process by which the 150 texts that were left on the 'approved' list, generated a substantial public outcry, forcing the BOP to return the texts to the libraries. The BOP has, however, stated that after a comprehensive examination of chapel libraries in the federal prison system, it may institute a similar policy and once again remove a portion of religious texts that are made available to inmates. Human Rights Watch urges the BOP not to renew this policy, which violates the rights of prisoners.

We acknowledge the legitimate need to regulate prisoner access to texts that advocate violence, but a policy that places an arbitrary numerical cap on the religious books and documents available to incarcerated persons infringes on their right to freedom of religious worship, observance and practice, and violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Under the Act, federal officials cannot substantially burden prisoners’ religious freedom unless they can demonstrate that the burden represents the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest. In this case, the undoubtedly compelling interest in preventing violence and promoting prison security can be satisfied by means far less restrictive than a wholesale purge of all but a few religious texts.

An arbitrary cap is also inconsistent with international standards. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states in Rule 42 on Religion that “[s]o far as practicable, every prisoner shall be allowed to satisfy the needs of his religious life by … having in his possession the books of religious observance and instruction of his denomination.”

For many prisoners, religious texts are a crucial component in the process of rehabilitation and self-examination, a process that can help them safely and productively re-enter the community when they are released from prison.

The Bureau of Prisons should not set an arbitrary limit on the number of religious texts available to prisoners, and should ban only those texts that pose a demonstrable risk to prison security.

Very truly yours,

David C. Fathi
Director, US Program

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