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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

October 12, 2007  
Harley G. Lappin  
Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons  
320 First St., NW  
Washington, DC 20534  
Dear Director Lappin:  
I write in response to the “Standardized Chapel Library Project,” which has resulted in the removal of thousands of religious texts from facilities operated by the Bureau of Prisons. Human Rights Watch urges the Bureau to halt all measures that arbitrarily limit the number and variety of religious texts that are made available to prisoners in the federal system. While we commend the Bureau’s recent decision to temporarily return the purged materials to prison chapel libraries, we are concerned by the Bureau’s statement that it may yet promulgate lists of approved religious texts, and restrict prisoner access to materials that do not appear on the lists.

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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