Current Comment

Jailhouse Blues


Disturbing news from the vast American prison system suggests that a new kind of censorship is afoot, one far more draconian than anything even the most inventive of inquisitors might have dreamed up. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has used the excuse of potential terrorist agitation to purge prison libraries around the nation of questionable theological texts that might discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize. The directive, known as the Standardized Chapel Library Project, also covers CDs, tapes and videos, and allows up to 150 book titles for each religious affiliation from a pre-approved list vetted by experts from various denominations. The list has drawn press attention for its curious omissions, including the writings of theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Cardinal Avery Dulles. In some cases, prisons have thrown away thousands of books not on the approved lists.

The real target would appear to be radical Muslims who are seeking to convert other prisoners to violent jihad. But any prison chaplain will agree that the quickest way to create a radical in prison is to deny a prisoner access to books. A decent library is one of the few consolations of the incarcerated, an escape from the endless boredom and depression of prison life. When denied that outlet, a prisoner will be even more susceptible to the deformed rhetoric and writings of the most extreme prisoners on the cell block. Well-intentioned though this new policy may be, the result may be the creation of environments around the country where radicalization of prisoners is even more likely.

Above and beyond the implications for prisoner rehabilitation, the Standardized Chapel Library Project constitutes a grave violation of religious liberty. Both prisoners rights and the scope of civil liberties in this time of terror are complicated issues. But it does not take a Supreme Court justice to see that broad exclusion of religious reading involves an excessive intrusion of government into the business of religion.

Investment, Not Subsidy

The Duchess of Cornwall and the Prince of Wales ride Amtrak. At least they did during a visit to the United States earlier this year. And while they did have a private, three car train, it was pulled by an Amtrak engine over Amtrak tracks from Philadelphia to New York. Lesser persons, like commuting senators and your editors, have reason to be grateful that Amtrak is there and that it works. Communities in the northwest and north central parts of the United States, where bus service has been cut back, share the feeling. But the Bush administration, in a woefully shortsighted move, is again threatening to cut funding for Amtrak. The mayor of Lancaster, Pa., Rick Gray, has complained: When we spend money on roads we call it an investment, when we spend money on public transportation we call it a subsidy. Every other country in the world invests in mass transportation. While there are undoubtedly countless political and economic considerations involved, one wonders if our own leaders might learn from the experience of Valery Giscard dEstaing. While president of France, he was asked by a pesky reporter the price of a ticket on the Paris metropolitan railway. He didnt know. Seven million or so Parisians were amused, appalled and outraged at how removed he seemed from their everyday lives.

Rights Activists Attacked

Risking their lives to protect the rights of marginalized people in Guatemala and Honduras, human rights activists have increasingly come under attack by powerful interests. In an August report called Persecution and Resistance, Amnesty International, whose credentials on such reporting are strong, notes that members of groups like the environmentally concerned group Tropico Verde and the Asociación Arcoirisa gay rights organizationhave been threatened and beaten in both countries.

Tropico Verde works to protect the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the largest tropical rain forest in Central America. Two of its environmental activists were stopped as they were returning from Guatemalas main airport this past January. A car cut off their taxi and several men dressed as police officers got out and fired shots at the taxi as it sped away. No one has been brought to justice. The two activists have since left the country because of concerns about their safety.

Similarly, a staff member with the Asociación Arcoiris in Honduras was arrested in March as he left the organizations headquarters. The police beat him and forced him into a car. At the police station they put him in a cell with others. Responding to police instigation, other prisoners repeatedly raped him. The director of Amnestys Americas program observes in the report that those who protect others from suffering human rights violations end up suffering abuses themselves, especially when their work offends powerful economic, political and social interests.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018
Kevin Clarke tells us about his reporting from Iraq.
Olga SeguraOctober 19, 2018