NEW YORK -- Inmates at the federal prison camp in Otisville, N.Y., were stunned at what they saw at the chapel library on Memorial Day: Hundreds of books disappeared from the shelves.
The removal of the books is occurring nationwide -- part of a long-delayed post-Sept. 11 federal directive designed to prevent radical religious texts, specifically Islamic ones, from falling into the hands of violent inmates.
Three inmates from Otisville filed a lawsuit over the policy, saying their Constitutional rights were violated. They say all religions were affected -- Islamic prayer books, Christian books, and ancient Jewish texts were among those removed.
"The set of books that have been taken out have been ones that we used to minister to new converts when they come in here," inmate John Okon, speaking on behalf of the prison's Christian population, told a judge last week.
Okon said it was unfortunate because "I have really seen religion turn around the life of some of these men, especially in the Christian community."
But the government stressed that the new rules don't entirely clear the shelves of prison chapel libraries.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Feldman told U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain that prison libraries limited the number of books for each religion to between 100 and 150 books under the new rules. But he said officials would expand the number after a second look at the list of permitted books.
Feldman said the order to remove books stems from an April 2004 Department of Justice review of how prisons choose Muslim religious services providers. It is not exactly clear why it took so long for the order to take effect, but prison officials needed time to pore over a long list of books and determine what's acceptable.
Feldman said the study was made out of a concern that prisons "had been radicalized by inmates who were practicing or espousing various extreme forms of religion, specifically Islam, which exposed security risks to the prisons and beyond the prisons to the public at large."
Feldman said the review by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons concluded that supervision of the prison chapel libraries was not as thorough as it should be and that none of the prisons' collections had been screened since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"The presence of extremist chaplains, contractors or volunteers in the BOP's correctional facilities can pose a threat to institutional security and could implicate national security if inmates are encouraged to commit terrorist acts against the United States," the report said.
The review suggested audio and video monitoring of worship areas and chapel classrooms and screening religious service providers to weed out extreme views. It also recommended prisons take steps to reduce inmate-led religious services and consider constant staff monitoring of inmate-led services.
A message for comment left with a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman in Washington was not immediately returned.
Feldman also said that inmates were permitted to order books on their own and bypass the chapel libraries. "So fundamentally this is not a case about what books the inmates have the ability to read," he said.
But inmates say the rules have had a chilling effect.
Inmate Moshe Milstein told the judge by telephone that the chaplain at Otisville removed about 600 books from the chapel library on Memorial Day, including Harold S. Kushner's bestseller: "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," a book that Norman Vincent Peale said was "a book that all humanity needs."
"There is definitely irreparable harm done to us already, and we would like the court to issue the injunction to get the books back as soon as possible," he said.
Inmate Douglas Kelly, who described himself as a representative of the prison's Muslim community, complained of "a denial of our First Amendment rights."
He said books on Islam already were among the smallest religious collections in the library and had been trimmed in half in the Memorial Day removal.
He said most of the Islamic books which disappeared involved the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed and contained instructions on how Muslims are supposed to pray and how to follow diet and religious laws, along with the statements of religious scholars trained by the prophet.
"A lot of what we are missing were definitely prayer books or prayer guides and religious laws on the part of the Muslim faith," he said.
The judge said the lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court, might be premature because the inmates had not yet followed prison administrative complaint procedures. She declined to block the book removals, the remedy sought by the lawsuit.
Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer who has represented a former head Islamic chaplain in the state prison system who was banned from the prisons after he was accused of making extremist statements, called the prison book removal "a mass Memorial Day book burning."
But he also said there might be limits to relief the prisoners can seek because the First Amendment rights of prisoners are severely limited in prison.
"What a wonderful way to honor those who have died for the cost of freedom," he said.
--The Associated Press