June 11, 2007

Book-banning raises specter of religious discrimination in prison

Federal prisoners in New York have filed suit over the sudden disappearance of hundreds of religious texts from the chapel library.

Religious books are being removed from prisons nationwide as part of a 2004 federal directive aimed at quelling the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in prison. The directive also suggests audio and video monitoring of worship services and heightened screening of religious service providers.

A U.S. Attorney said the directive stems from concern that prisons are being radicalized by Islamic prisoners. He said officials will create a new list of permitted religious books.

Although prisoners at the Otisville federal prison camp reported that some Christian texts were also removed, the book banning appears to be part of a wave of anti-Islamic discrimination in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. A Justice Department investigation two years ago found mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at multiple lockups in the United States.

The anti-Islamic discrimination coincides with growing federal support for Christian ministries in prison. With links to the White House, a politically powerful evangelical Christian group, Prison Fellowship Ministries, has assumed outright control of prison wings and corrections budgets in Kansas, Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, and other states, according to a 2003 expose in Mother Jones magazine.

Despite this massive federal sponsorship of Christian ministries, the proportion of Muslim prisoners continues to grow. While the vast majority of prisoners are still Christian, Muslims make up about 20% of the incarcerated population in some states, according to a 1999 article in the Wall Street Journal. Some Christian ministers perceive this as a threat.

Ironically, research suggests that anti-Muslim crackdowns will backfire, contributing to increased militancy among Muslim prisoners.

Based on a four-year research project in British prisons, anthropologist Gabriele Marranci reported that experiences of religious discrimination made Muslim prisoners more vulnerable to recruitment by militant organizations.

"I found no evidence to suggest that the Muslim chaplains are behaving or preaching in a way that facilitates radicalisation," Dr. Marranci reported. "On the contrary, my findings suggest that they are extremely important in preventing dangerous forms of extremism. However, the distrust that they face, both internally and externally, is jeopardising their important function."