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Prison Officials Are Curtailing the Opium of the People

The Scenario

You are an inmate at a federal New York prison camp and you have found God (or G_d, or Allah, or _ _ _) and are using the chapel library to further your newfound faith. Once day you come in to borrow more books and you find that with the exception of a few volumes, pretty much every book has been removed.

The Outrage

Inmates are incensed and crying foul! They claim that their First Amendment rights have been violated. They demand that the removed books will be returned immediately. Self-proclaimed as well as agreed upon spiritual leaders and spokesmen of religious groups want to be heard, stating that finding a faith is one of the good things that has come out of a prison stay for many inmates.

The Reasoning

Government officials do not deny that finding religion of any kind is a great idea for a prison inmate and that in fact it will help this person to later on find their way back into society. However, given the fact that some faiths proclaim violence against the United States and may also incite rioting simply because of fiery rhetoric, they believe that it will be wiser to keep a close eye on the religious observances that are going on behind bars.

Seeing Reason

Anyone who is a parent knows how hard it is to stuff the genie of permissiveness back into the bottle. Once a privilege has been granted, it is next to impossible to withdraw the privilege and not face a lot of whining, crying, tears, rage, frustration, and cajoling. Perhaps the privilege was granted unwisely, or maybe the parent found that while the child thoroughly enjoyed the privilege, it does not work well within the family unit.

It sounds as though the reasoning of government officials is similar. Citing a federal directive from 2004, they finally got around to obeying the mandate that wants religious activities behind bars more closely monitored. It is true that in the past books just appeared on shelves and pretty much very little oversight was taken when it came to checking what was actually being said inside those books.

While the prisoners are claiming that their Constitutional rights are being violated, it is important to note that this is not the case. Free speech or the free exercise of religion is not being curtailed. There is not one faith group that has claimed that its belief system demands that certain books be read by all and these books have been removed. Instead, there are plenty of books for each faith left in the chapel library – the count is at about 100 to 150 per represented religion.

Yet what does strike as puzzling is the fact that a) it took officials about two years to act and b) who decides what is inflammatory, riot inciting, and dangerous and what is not? Furthermore, if officials are willing to go down that road the next question that begs is what to do with religions that are blatantly racist, anti-American, violent, or all three? Will inmates have the freedom to practice these religions or will they be prohibited?

Should the latter be the case, one cannot help but wonder why rape, drug trade, mob hits and gang activity are all tolerated inside the prison system, but religious observances – even of the more extreme kind – are not? After all, is it not harder to deal with a deity that demands total devotion than with a gang leader? Would it not make more sense to stop the demeaning practices that many inmates are subjected to by fellow inmates on a daily basis? Should not the drugs be removed first before going after the “opium of the people” (as Marx liked to refer to religion)?

Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

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