From behind bars, many prisoners turn to religion to fill the void in their lives. Frequently, prisoners' pursuits dovetail with the prison system's goal of rehabilitating the convicts in its care; at the end of their incarcerations, if prisoners leave with a better understanding of right and wrong, so the thinking goes, they'll be less likely to return in the future.

But that logic has come under fire recently by a federal rule change implemented in May limiting prison libraries under the domain of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons from carrying no more than 150 titles dealing with any single religion.

The new policy, while rooted in a desire to prevent religiously-motivated militancy from taking hold in federal penitentiaries, has struck some – particularly Jewish prisoners and officials with the Chabad-Lubavitch Aleph Institute – as odd, considering that many traditional Jewish texts like Maimonides' Mishneh Torah legal code are now off limits. The rule is being challenged by Jewish, Christian and Muslim prisoners in a class-action law suit.

"Inmates in prison are searching for a sense of spirituality; they are looking to adjust their lives," said Ron, who spent the past two years and seven months as an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo, Miss. As with all of the other prisoners and former prisoners interviewed for this story, Ron requested that his last name not be used.

"Inmates are looking to help themselves and search for ways to rehabilitate," he added. "Most people on the outside do not hear the cries for help from inmates. Many have very little family contact, [and] there is an atmosphere of hopelessness."

Surprisingly, according to Ron, who was the leader of his prison's makeshift Jewish community, most prisons are not built with rehabilitation in mind. With the exception of the odd meager job, inmates could, if they so desired, sit around and do nothing all day. Some take the time to plot future crimes or harbor resentment at a system they blame for keeping them incarcerated, he asserted.

Relatively high rates of recidivism seem to give weight to his argument. The study of religion and other productive pursuits are the only things that can halt the cycle, said Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, an official with the Aleph Institute, which for 25 years has been providing Jewish books, tapes and videos to prison libraries.

"Our objective is that the Jew in prison should have the tools to be more accountable in the future and to be better family people," explained Lipskar. "Through books, tapes, educational material and programs, we give the inmates resources to be able to rehabilitate."

In Yazoo City, much of the religious library came from Aleph and rabbinical students to give classes to prisoners and conduct High Holiday services.

"Aleph hears inmates' requests," said Ron. "For many Jews it is their only lifeline to the Jewish community. They are the only organization that offers to help and they do it non-judgmentally."

Michael G., an inmate in a Florida prison agreed: "Until the books arrived, I spent the days here in a mindless fog. I sit now and read from the books, and the hours are filled with awe and inspiration."

Limiting the Books

Nevertheless, a May 2004 report issued by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General noted that religious materials available to prison inmates had not been "re-screened since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks." It recommended that the Bureau of Prisons conduct an inventory of books and videos in the various prison chapels and re-screen them to confirm that they are permissible under federal security policies.

After the bureau moved to implement the recommendations this May, existing Jewish chapel libraries in some prisons have been literally dismantled, according to Lipskar. Countless Jewish books, videos and audio tapes that were not included on an approved list of 150 titles have been removed from chapel libraries.

Chanoch Lubling, a New York attorney and long-time volunteer for Agudath Israel of America specializing in the religious rights of prisoners, characterized the bureau's new policy as heavy-handed, especially when considering that prison libraries have received hundreds of volumes over the years.

"A vast amount of authoritative religious study materials have been donated to prison libraries by religious organizations. As a result, some Jewish prison chapels have accumulated hundreds of books, videos and audio presentations on various religious subjects that were regularly being used by Jewish inmates," said Lubling.

"We understand the issue at hand," said Lipskar. "We want to address it and work on practical solutions."

The rabbi advocated an approved list of publishers and organizations that are involved in chaplaincy issues to streamline the approval process.

"The current system will not work," he stated. "We want the bureau of prisons to work with us in continuing our positive relationship; we need to find ways to overcome the obstacles.

Of the wholesale culling of library inventories, he added: "The way this was done is not in the best interest of the inmates."