QUESTION: Standardized Chapel Library Project

question / pregunta: 

Are the libraries of private, for-profit prisons subject to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Standardized Chapel Library Project policy? The librarian to whom I supply materials via ILL is claiming compliance with this policy as a reason to limit inmates' access to religious and scholarly material, but I think it's only enforceable within the federal prison system.


All the news stories I found addressing the Chapel Library Project have identified it as a Federal Prison regulation. State and federal facilities do not use the same rules and regulations generally: state prisons have a plethora of different book restrictions state-to-state (more on that below) but state prisons and federal prisons media restrictions do not appear to apply to one another.

Incidentally, the new policy was recently overturned in part -- though the New York Times reports that the Bureau of Prisons has "not abandoned the idea of creating such lists.", (Banerjee, N. "Prisons to restore purged religious books" New York Times 9/27/07.)

If the facility to which you are delivering ILLs houses Federal inmates, or this prison is on contract to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, federal prison rules are likely to be an issue for you. Another RadRef member found a 2003 report submitted to the Justice Department titled Governments' Management of Private Prisons, describing the use of private prisons by both state governments and the BOP. A quote from the report:

"The most usual result, regardless of who owns the facility, is the creation of one-to-one relationship between prison operator and the state prison system. That is, the state prison system is the contractor’s sole client at the facility; the only prisoners held in the facility are those under the jurisdiction of the client state agency."

Those who are interested in the basic difference between state and federal prisons -- specifically who is sent to which -- can find more information on this Federal Bureau of Prisons web page.

If you are delivering ILL books to state prisoners, you might encounter a variety of other restrictions. Judging by input I received from various participants in the American Library Association's prison-issues list serve, PRISON-L, who I've kept anonymous here, these restrictions vary from state to state and include both formal and informal censorship: one respondent who works with an organization delivering donated books to state prisons and county jails in New York State wrote that "the federal rules would not apply to state institutions and state rules would not apply to county or city jails." She describes a wide and inconsistent range of restrictions existing from state to state and (within that) from facility to facility, although most of the restrictions she has encountered in facilities in New York State are material- rather than content-oriented, usually re: the material's ability to conceal or be turned into a weapon.

A librarian who works in state prison libraries in a Mid-Atlantic state wrote that she has had to defend challenges from prison staff on an ever-changing range of topics:

"I have had to defend challenges on:
--- business books because they feel the inmates will get scam ideas
---books on dogs because they have a canine unit and the inmates may
learn how to manipulate the dogs
--- books on crime because the prison psychologist feels it may impede
the treatment of her inmate
It goes on and on. In recent years the whimsical challenges have grown
as wardens, in the name of security, allow security staff to be
arbitrarily harass on site librarian about content.

Many librarians do not even report because they are afraid of
harassment by the security staff."

And a facility librarian working in a state facility in the Southwest wrote that he believes if the private prison you are working with is on contract to a state, you only have to comply with state restrictions.

I (Jess @ RadRef) work with the volunteer group Books Through Bars NYC, where we keep an ever-changing list of prison restrictions, constructed more or less through tracking rejected book packages. My experience has also been that federal prisons have different regulations from state facilities, and that some states are more enamored of content restrictions than others. While some corrections departments, such as New York State, put their book censorship policies up on the web, most do not. Books to prisoners groups across the country are having a conference in November, at which dealing with and challenging book rejections is expected to be a major topic of discussion.

An interesting article written by Glennor Shirley, Library Coordinator at the Maryland State Department of Education, Correctional Education Libraries, on censorship in prison libraries is available on the American Library Association's website here.

Class action suit against policy

The American Library Association has posted a copy of the class action suit filed by two inmates against this policy.

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