Prisons to Remove Unapproved Religious Books The federal government has ordered prisons to remove all unapproved religious books from their libraries. The concern is that prisons could potentially be fertile recruiting grounds for terrorists. Is the move unconstitutional? How serious is the threat of extremist religion in prisons?
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Prisons to Remove Unapproved Religious Books

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Prisons to Remove Unapproved Religious Books

Prisons to Remove Unapproved Religious Books

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington.

There are more than 2 million people in prisons across the United States, the largest prison population in the world. In the wake of 9/11, this has terrorism experts wondering, with so many people incarcerated, are prisons fertile recruiting grounds for terrorists? And if so, what can be done?

One thing federal prison officials have been doing is quietly purging their chapel libraries of religious books and materials that might advocate violence or possibly radicalize their inmates. That prompted howls of protest from some inmates who said the order violated their right to practice their own religion. So the Bureau of Prisons has relented and says it will return many of the materials, except those it deems inappropriate.

What's going on here? Should we be worried about religious radicals in American prisons? If you work as a chaplain in the prison system or were an inmate or know someone who was, give us a call.

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. If you practice your religion in prison, we'd like to hear from you. Our e-mail address is And you can also comment on our blog, it's at

Later in the program, NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin will be here to answer your questions about politics, the New Hampshire primary race and the latest on Senator Larry Craig.

But first, religious radicalism and American prisons.

We're joined now by Dr. Gregory Saathoff, the executive director of the Critical Incident Analysis Group at the University of Virginia. Last year, he co-authored a report called "Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization." And he joins us from a studio in the University of Virginia campus.

And, Dr. Saathoff, thanks for joining us.

Dr. GREGORY SAATHOFF (Executive Director, Critical Incident Analysis Group, University of Virginia; Co-author, "Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization"): Thanks for having me.

BROOKS: Now, your report didn't focus exclusively on Islamic radicalism in American prisons, but it was a big focus, correct?

Dr. SAATHOFF: That's right.

BROOKS: Yeah. Tell us about it. What were the findings? How big a risk is this according to the work that you did?

Dr. SAATHOFF: Well, our findings are that - first, radicalization is neither unique to Islam or a recent phenomenon. And that, particularly, when we are speaking about Islam, that jailhouse Islam incorporates violent prison culture into religious practice and, therefore, shouldn't be seen as being identical or even oftentimes close to the practice of Islam that we see in society. We do know through our review that there is certainly an inadequate number of Muslim religious service providers. And also, that there are significant resource limitations that hinder efforts to identify and combat prison radicalization.

BROOKS: The report…


BROOKS: Yeah, go ahead - sorry.

Dr. SAATHOFF: I guess the most important thing is that we don't know what we don't know, and that there really is, at this time, insufficient information to quantify the threat.

BROOKS: Yeah. And I guess that's a key point here talking about that issue of insufficient information. I guess we have to be careful here and not to be too alarmist about this. I mean, take action, be cautious, but, as you say, we don't really know how big this threat is.

Dr. SAATHOFF: That's absolutely right.

BROOKS: So what has to happen to get to that point where we can quantify the threat?

Dr. SAATHOFF: Well, the recommendations of our report were that we need to objectively assess the risk posed by radical religious groups. And in order to do that, we need to also identify steps to ensure the effective provision of religious services. Oftentimes, there's a void, particularly in Islam, when it comes to the provision of services. It's certainly going to be important to identify steps to reintegrate former inmates into larger society when they're released, and also to identify broader areas of dialogue with the Muslim community in order to facilitate understanding.

BROOKS: 1-800-989-8255 is the number to call. We're talking about the possibility of radicalizing prisoners and prisons as a fertile recruiting ground for terrorism in the United States. Give us your call. Let us know what you think, especially if you had an experience with the federal prison system.

Gregory Saathoff, the report refers to a number of publicized connections between former prisoners and terrorism. One example was Richard Reid, who was apprehended attempting to detonate a shoe bomb on a U.S. commercial flight in 2001, and he was believed to have converted to radical Islam while in prison in Great Britain. There were other cases, too. Can you go through one or two of those?

Dr. SAATHOFF: Sure. Well, certainly, one of the most famous is that of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, he was the emir of Egypt's Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya group. And he was the cleric, actually, who plotted to bomb the New York City World Trade Center in 1993. He's been sentenced to a life term within the Federal Bureau of Prisons and certainly is an example of a threat because he headed a group who also have been incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

BROOKS: Right. Okay. And there were a couple of others.

I want to bring in Laurie Goodstein. She's a correspondent with The New York Times - oh, sorry, Laurie Goodstein, correspondent with The New York Times. And she joins us from New York.

Laurie, thanks for joining us, and welcome back to the show.

Ms. LAURIE GOODSTEIN (Correspondent, The New York Times; author, "Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries"): Thank you.

BROOKS: As we started out this hour, we were talking about this program to cull prison chapel libraries of certain texts. This was a program put in place by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Tell us something about this. What do - why did this program start?

Ms. GOODSTEIN: Well, the inspector general at the Justice Department had done a study of radicalization in prisons that looked at both chaplains, and also found that many of the prisons had no sense of what was in their chapel libraries. This is where prisoners might go to read and study their religious faiths or learn about other religious faiths. And the idea was to get a hold of what was in these chapel libraries that prisoners had access to.

So the Bureau of Prisons initially said, let's try to take an inventory, and then when they got to something like 80,000 titles coming in, decided this is overwhelming, this is too much, instead, let's come up with some list of acceptable titles. So for each of something like 20 religious faiths or religious groups, they said, you can have up to 150 books and 150 audiovisual resources. And everything that's not on those lists, you chaplains have to remove from your prison libraries.

And the effect of that was, essentially, it stripped a lot of these chapel libraries from almost all their resources because they had a lot of things in their libraries that they had accumulated over the years, donations from churches or things that publishers had sent them or things that prisoners had donated when they left. But they weren't on the list.


Ms. GOODSTEIN: Necessarily titles that were dangerous or problematic, it simply that they didn't show up on the list, so the bureau said, sorry, you have to pull them.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GOODSTEIN: And this had a tremendous impact on the prisoners.

BROOKS: Yeah. Who objected to this the most? I mean, where I - I imagine there were shouts of protests about this.

Ms. GOODSTEIN: Well, there were. I mean, for a while, it was quiet. But then, there are religious groups that do work in prisons, and they started to hear complaints.

There was a lawsuit filed from three prisoners - one a Muslim, one a Christian, one a Jew - up at the Otisville Federal Prison Camp in Upstate New York. And that library serves a population that includes a lot of Orthodox Jews. And in that area, there are a lot of Orthodox Jewish congregations who had spent years building up a very fine library of religious texts that the prisoners would spend time studying. And suddenly, most of those were gone.


Ms. GOODSTEIN: The Muslim prisoner there said that the only thing left on his shelf - he had had one shelf devoted to Islam - there were only three books: the Koran and two other books.

BROOKS: Well, it is an alarming idea, a federal agency deciding what text folks can read, even if they're in prison. Okay, so today, NPR received a statement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that it has decided to alter its planned course of action. I'm just going to read one section of it. It says: The bureau will begin immediately the return to chapel libraries materials that were removed in June 2007 with the exception of any publications that have been found to be inappropriate, such as material that could be radicalizing or insight violence.

Laurie, did that sound like that's going to assuage the critics?

Ms. GOODSTEIN: Well, I think it might, because this is what the critics had asked all along. Why remove everything, why not just make a list of what's problematic? And what is confusing about this is that the Bureau of Prisons had, in part, done that. They had already come up with a list of publishers whose material was problematic. They included both Muslim and Christian resources. And they said, you can't have anything from those publishers. Why they then took this next step to say, here is a list of the exclusive books that you may have, nobody understands. And all kinds of religious organizations - it really united religious organizations across the spectrum, both interfaith and then also politically, who said this is absurd and unnecessary.

BROOKS: Hmm. Gregory Saathoff, what do you make of this? Was this a good move by the Bureau of Prisons to do something like this? Was it necessary in your view, given the research you did on this?

Dr. SAATHOFF: Well, certainly, the Bureau of Prisons has attempted to be responsive to Congress and the Office of the Inspector General. And in reading the 2004 report and hearing the concerns, I think there was an interest in moving, and it appears perhaps moving too quickly. I'm not surprised at all that the Bureau of Prisons has modified its position a pretty substantial way.

You know, these issues - I think there certainly is agreement that government does have a legitimate and compelling interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons. But the devil is in the details, and I think that operationalizing any approach, particularly one as sensitive as this -involving religions, the First Amendment - this is major issue.

BROOKS: What else should - well, I'm going to save this question for after the break because we're about to go to a break.

And, Laurie Goodstein, I want to say thank you and goodbye to you. Thanks for joining us, and bringing us up to date on this story.

Ms. GOODSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

BROOKS: I appreciate it.

And, Gregory Saathoff, you stay with us. We're going to pick up with you after the break.

We're talking about religious extremism in American prisons. We'll talk with a former Muslim prison chaplain next, and your calls at 800-989-8255. You can send us e-mail, the address is

I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BROOKS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.

Ken Rudin, our political junkie, will be here a little later in the hour. If you have questions about Larry Craig, this week's debates, or the latest poll numbers, you can send them by e-mail,

Right now, our focus is on religious extremism and the federal prison system. Should we be worried about religious radicals in American prisons? If you work as a chaplain in the prison system or were an inmate or know someone who was, give us a call. 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog,

Our guest is Gregory Saathoff, he's executive director for the Critical Incident Analysis Group at the University of Virginia and co-author of the report, "Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization."

And let's go right to a call. Let's go to James(ph) who's calling from Raleigh, North Carolina. Hi James, you're on the air.

JAMES (Caller): How are you doing?

BROOKS: Very well, thanks for your call. What's up?

JAMES: First of all, I'm a corrections officer and this, in no way, reflects on my department, but I do have a question.

BROOKS: Well, I'm glad you called in.

JAMES: I'm also a Muslim and I wonder why it always seems to be that they want to make the Islamic inmates or the Islamic people the radicals as opposed to, say, the Baptists or Catholics or anyone else in the prison system.

BROOKS: Well, let's put that question to Gregory Saathoff who did this report. In fact, Mr. Saathoff, your report doesn't just single out the possibility of Muslim extremism, you also talk about Christian groups as being potentially dangerous as well.

Dr. SAATHOFF: That's right. And I think that the decision of the Federal Bureau of Prisons not to focus just on Islam, but to focus on religious texts throughout, really underlines the fact that this was an equal opportunity decision that antagonized numerous religions.

BROOKS: Hmm. But, in fact, in your report as well, you talk about an example of a Christian group that was involved in some extremist acts, is that correct? Am I recalling this correctly?

Dr. SAATHOFF: That's right.

BROOKS: Can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr. SAATHOFF: James Ellison, who was the founder of the extremist Christian group, Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord, met Robert Millar when he was incarcerated.

Millar was a leader of the radical Christian Identity movement and became his spiritual advisor while there. When the compound, CSA compound, was eventually raided, authorities found homemade landmines and U.S. Army anti-tank rockets, as well as large supply of cyanide, that the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord was apparently planning to use to poison the city's water supply.

BROOKS: Hmm. But isn't it a little disingenuous, Gregory Saathoff? I mean, in the wake of 9/11, these concerns, first and foremost, aren't they - on the part of the U.S. government anyway - are about radical Islamic fundamentalism getting out of control in prisons. I mean, isn't that the primary concern here?

Dr. SAATHOFF: I think it is of significant concern and certainly one that bears scrutiny, but I think the actions of the Federal Bureau of Prisons demonstrate that there is a concern for radical religions and those who would insight violence under the cloak of religion. So, as I mentioned earlier, this is not a recent phenomenon. And, certainly, radicalization is not unique to Islam.

BROOKS: Hmm. Yeah, go ahead, James.

JAMES: I had one other question. Don't the majority of the groups that would be radicalized in the prison, (unintelligible), aren't most of them related to Christianity or some form of thereof anyway, as opposed to the Islamic prisoners in the system?

BROOKS: What do you think, Dr. Saathoff? I'm not sure about that.

Dr. SAATHOFF: That is a great question. And the reason it's a great question is that we don't know the answer to it. One of the big problems that we found in our task force is that we know so little about the practice of religion in prisons. And so, your question is an excellent one, and we recommend that much more research be done in terms of just understanding what is going on in the prisons, because there's really not much out there.

BROOKS: Hmm. James, thanks for the call.

JAMES: Thank you.

BROOKS: I want to bring in Frederick Al-Deen. He was a Muslim prison chaplain for eight years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Estill, South Carolina and the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Frederick al-Deen is with us on a cell phone from Chicago, I believe? Good to have you with us.

Mr. FREDERICK Al-DEEN (Former Prison Chaplain): Thank you very much.

BROOKS: Well, give us your take on this situation. Are prisons breeding grounds for religious extremists?

Mr. Al-DEEN: Well, no more so than society in general, because people who are in prison for religious extremism, chances are, their behavior before they were incarcerated contributed to their behavior in what we would call their radicalization.

But radicalization is something every human being that's older than 15 knows. That they are a member of soccer teams, football teams, basketball teams, unions, fraternities, sorority. Everybody's taught to get fired up. And that's what radicalization is. It's a common term that's just being focused on Islam. But everybody's been radicalized in this country.

BROOKS: But isn't justified to a certain extent to focus particular attention on prisons where you're going to tend to have a population of people who are disenchanted with society and disconnected from society and perhaps more liable to be recruited for these kinds of organizations?

Mr. Al-DEEN: Well, I disagree. I can't think of a more surveilled population than people who are incarcerated. The American society, in general, is getting to be more and more in a virtual prison. But in prisons, they know what a prisoner eats, what comes in their mail, who they talk to on the telephone, who visits them, what their weight is, what their illnesses are, what their abnormalities are, and they have complete control of nearly all the prisoners. So, to be concerned about what prisoners are doing - it is a concern, but it is unrealistic to make it an overbearing concern.

BROOKS: Hmm. Gregory Saathoff, do you want to respond to that? I mean, do you think that that, you know, is overlooking a potential problem here?

Dr. SAATHOFF: Well, certainly there was a recently foiled attack at New Folsom State Prison. The leader of the group, Kevin Lamar James, had - advocate jihad against he U.S. government and supporters of Israel, and two men implicated in the plot were recruited from a local mosque by a disciple of James, who had been released from the prison.

And I think the thing that was concerning to officials is that this was only discovered during a robbery. One of the perpetrators had dropped a cell phone. And from that cell phone, then authorities were able to learn about what was going on within the prison in terms of this radicalization recruitment.

So, yes, I agree that prisons are certainly a very surveilled population. But in terms of being able to allow researchers in the prison to better understand what's going on, it's remarkable how little we know in some ways.

Mr. Al-DEEN: I disagree with that entirely.

BROOKS: Go ahead, Frederick Al-Deen.

Mr. Al-DEEN: As a chaplain, the - under the leadership of Susan Van Baalen, who I think is still chaplain at the Bureau of Prisons, and other fine chaplains in the bureau, the bureau has been provided with exhaustive information on groups from Wiccan to Native Americans, to Hindus, to whatever you can think of. And there is this one manual that explains all of this, all of this. And secondly, the Bureau of Prisons has a resource list of rabbis, Native American shamans, imams, anything they need that if they really had a question about - even the nation of Islam, that if they have a question, all they need to do is pick up the local resource directory and call the local contact.

But there's no doubt that, in fact, that there is (unintelligible) of information is more than a mystery to me than whether or not a person could be radicalized.

BROOKS: Okay. Well, let's bring another caller into this conversation. Let's go to Andrew(ph) who's calling from Traverse City, Michigan. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I was just recently incarcerated in FCI McKean and MCC Chicago.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

ANDREW: And, yeah, as soon as you get to a compound, there's - the whole - pretty much everybody's involved in a religion. If you're not, you're a gangbanger and doing some other stuff. But everybody seeks you out to join their side whether, you know, whatever side it is, you know? So…

BROOKS: So what kind of pressure did you face?

ANDREW: First, it was for - because I'm white, the whites approached me, and they wanted me to join, you know, their Christian identity. And then the blacks, they wanted me to be Muslim, and then, you know, it's really hard to function there without friends, and you don't really make friends unless you join a - you know what I'm saying? If you're there a long time, it takes you a long time to, you know, get respect, and, you know, be known for who you are. You know, lot of people right off the bus, join, you know, some type of religious group, and you don't really realize how extreme it is until you're already neck-deep in it, you know?

BROOKS: Well, Andrew, let me get Frederick Al-Deen, who was a prison chaplain for eight years to respond to you. How do you respond to that? That does sound like some pretty intense pressure that Andrew is talking about? Is that something that you came into contact with and would help your inmates deal with?

Mr. AL-DEEN: Well, as I recall, my experience at Leavenworth Penitentiary when a young Caucasian former member of the Aryan Brotherhood with tattoos, long hair and tattoos all over the body, walked into the chapel and says, Imam, I want to become a Muslim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AL-DEEN: And that set off a tidal wave among the correctional staff because what do you with Bobby(ph)? Everybody was asking me every other day. Is Bobby for real? Is he really up to it? I said, he says he is. And then the African-Americans would ask me, what are you going to do about Bobby?

BROOKS: And what did you do?

Mr. AL-DEEN: (Unintelligible). Well, we took him to Shahada and he became a person who began the journey of becoming an informed Muslim. And the caller is right, and I'm very happy that he is out and I pray to God he never has to go back. There is intense pressure to join groups, but there's also ways that you can avoid that. And that is typically by immersing yourself in books, exercise routines, making a wide array of social contacts within the prison system, and also making contacts with the correctional staff and let them know if there is a problem that you're encountering, and they'll see to it that if it gets too intense, they'll move you.

BROOKS: Hmm. Okay. Let's take another call. Let's go to Handle(ph) who's calling from Atlanta, Georgia. Hi, Handle.

HANDLE (Caller): Hello.

BROOKS: Yes, you're on the air.

HANDLE: My concern is that taking religion out of prison is as much - it makes as much sense as taking medicines out of hospitals. People go to prisons to be reformed, to be healed.

BROOKS: Yeah. But are you hearing in this discussion, Handle, that religion should be taken out of prison?

HANDLE: That is what I heard in the introduction.

BROOKS: Oh, well, it's true. Yeah. Do you mean the whole discussion about the books and what the Federal Bureau of Prisons is doing.

HANDLE: That is correct.


HANDLE: As a matter of fact, Paul the Apostle, if you read the Acts of the Apostles, Paul the Apostle concentrated on the prisons and early Christians. And, by the way, Christianity was radical during the Roman time. So that if we go in that direction, we better start censuring the Bible.

Mr. AL-DEEN: Amen.

BROOKS: All right. Well, Handle, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate the point. You can…

Mr. AL-DEEN: Can I go back to that one case that the person cited about foiling a plot in the California prison systems?

BROOKS: You can do that in just a few seconds. I just want to give out the phone number.

Mr. AL-DEEN: Great.

BROOKS: 800-989-8255 is the number to call. We're talking about the potential for political radicalization in prisons. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Frederick al-Deen, you wanted to go back and make another point.

Mr. AL-DEEN: Right. The one case out in the prison system in California where a knucklehead was supposed to have recruited people to Islam and that person went out and recruited two people on the outside. I'm sure that it was in the (unintelligible) as a government informant, I'm pretty sure of that. And that's because of my nearly 25 years in working in law enforcement, from gun-carrying to being a chaplain to being assistant warden in a community-based treatment facility. That was no threat.

The officials knew about it all along. And what did they do? They took a 22 rifle and shot chairs in the bushes somewhere? That's not an Islamic thought. That is a news opportunity, a photo-up. And it really doesn't point to anybody being radicalized by Islam. You do have some people that are easy to follow others. A young man that they claimed was a Muslim is definitely not a Muslim. He does not espouse Islam. He has his own thing. So we take that out of the equation. We have no examples of radicalization of Muslim inmates in the prison system.

BROOKS: Gregory Saathoff, one of the things that your report talks about is a shortage of resources in federal prisons and a shortage specifically of Muslim chaplains like Frederick al-Deen.

Dr. SAATHOFF: Absolutely. One of the things that is concerning is that not that there's too much but that there's too little when it comes to resources within the prison system particularly with regards to Islam.

Mr. AL-DEEN: Can I address that?

BROOKS: Yeah. Let's let Mr. Saathoff finish and then I'd love you address it.

Mr. AL-DEEN: I'm sorry, yeah.


Mr. AL-DEEN: But there's a program in the offing that I want to tell you about.

Dr. SAATHOFF: I would like to emphasize, though, that I agree with Mr. al-Deen with regard to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the great strides that it's made. Funny, a distinction that a lot of people don't make, however, is, I'm sorry, you mentioned early in the program, which is that we have over two million inmates. And it's really only a fraction of those that are in the federal system.

BROOKS: What? Is it something like 200,000 in the federal system? Do I have that number right?

Dr. SAATHOFF: Yes, about 200,000. Whereas the total number of prison inmates is about 2.2 million. So it's really within the state facilities that we, in our report, we really underline in terms of having some of the most questions. For example, in 2004, there was a survey of almost 200 wardens in state facilities. And that survey showed that only half of religious services were physically supervised and half of the…

Mr. AL-DEEN: That's right.

Dr. SAATHOFF: …institutions allowed inmates themselves to act as spiritual leaders. And so, I think that Mr. al-Deen and I agree much more than we disagree. The issue that we have some of the greatest question about just in terms of having and understanding what's going on is the state facilities versus the federal facilities, which are…

Mr. AL-DEEN: I agree. And thing that we would recommend is a program we have starting up this winter session, if I may be self-serving for a moment. It's a chaplaincy certification program with a local university here in Chicago, East West University, that's addressing the very critical problem that the gentleman just pointed out.

And that is that we, the Muslim community, have people representing us in state and in some federal prisons about whom we know nothing. They are detached from any mosque community, incorporated mosque community. They may be from a storefront that nobody knows about, but many of them are people who - about whom we know nothing as far as their training, their preparation, their philosophy, their anything. And we advocate for a mandated certification program for anybody, male or female, working in a federal prison, a college or university, or any other public institution where Muslims are - be they prisoners, students or what have you - so that we can, as a community, take more control of our faith and be a better helper, a resource to the government in what we know is a war against the use of force and violence to change people's attitudes and political situations.

BROOKS: All right. Well, on that note, we're going to leave it there. I want to thank both of you gentlemen for coming in and joining us today. That's Frederick al-Deen. He was a former prison chaplain. He joined us by cell phone from Chicago. Mr. al-Deen, thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. AL-DEEN: Thank you.

BROOKS: And Gregory Saathoff, executive director of Critical Incident Analysis Group at the University of Virginia. He was co-author of "Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization." Thank you, Dr. Saathoff.

Dr. SAATHOFF: Thank you.

BROOKS: Coming up, Republican no-shows offend black voters, new polls put Hillary further out front, and Larry Craig gets his day in court. The Political Junkie is next.

You can call 800-989-8255 to ask your questions, or e-mail us at

Stay with us. I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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