Moshe Milstein, a religious Jew who is incarcerated at the federal prison in Otisville, N.Y., wants his Maimonides back. Officials at the Otisville prison recently removed hundreds of books from the chapel library there—including, Milstein charges in court documents, works by the great 12th-century rabbi and physician Maimonides as well as the Zohar, the ancient text upon which the mystical practice of Kabbalah is based. The books were removed, Bureau of Prisons officials explain, to comply with new rules set earlier this year. To reduce the risk that prisoners will find hateful or radicalizing (read: terrorist) materials in chapel libraries, the BOP has developed lists of 150 approved books per religion for 20 religions, including Bahai, Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses. In all of the bureau's 114 prisons, chaplains are in the midst of dramatic reorganizations, removing from shelves any book not on one of the BOP's lists. "It was a huge undertaking," says Traci Billingsley, a BOP spokeswoman.
Together with a Christian and a Muslim inmate, Milstein sued Otisville prison officials, saying the removal of the religious books violated their civil rights and presented insurmountable obstacles to practicing and studying their faiths. Particularly forceful was Milstein, who argued the inmates' side to a judge by phone in May. He used to read the Zohar every day, he said, and "every day we don't have access to [these books] really presents a problem for us." On July 27, the case was withdrawn while the inmates exhaust the grievance process within the prison system. Meanwhile, attorneys at the New York law firm Paul, Weiss stand by, ready to refile if the inmates' demands aren't met.
Religious groups have taken up the inmates' cause. They accuse the BOP of, in the words of the Orthodox Jewish leaders who wrote a letter to BOP director Harley Lappin, "throwing the baby out with the bath water." The goal behind the lists—that is, preventing inmates nationwide from reading incendiary tracts—may be exemplary, they say, but its implementation is not. "The new policy will force chaplains to throw out many excellent books ... leaving only a possibility of 150 books available to the inmates," wrote Mark L. Early, president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, in a letter to the BOP's chaplain. Billingsley says that the lists aren't capped; prisoners are welcome to submit titles for vetting at any time. Besides, she says, books about the great Maimonides remain on the Jewish list. Maimonides, a book lover if ever there was one, would not approve.