[Pnews] ‘It’s the racial stuff’: Illinois prison banned, removed books on black history and empowerment from inmate education program

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 19 13:47:06 EDT 2019


  ‘It’s the racial stuff’: Illinois prison banned, removed books on
  black history and empowerment from inmate education program

Peter Nickeas - August 15, 2019

Officials at an Illinois prison suspended an educational program for 
inmates, launched two internal investigations and removed 200 books from 
a prison library because many had “racial” content or addressed issues 
like diversity and inclusion, according to records obtained by the Tribune.

Danville Correctional Center officials also prohibited for use in the 
University of Illinois program several classic books of African American 
history, including “The Souls of Black Folk,” the anti-slavery novel 
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the memoir of former slave and abolitionist 
Frederick Douglass.

Hundreds of pages of records released by the Illinois Department of 
Corrections in response to Freedom of Information Act requests paint the 
clearest picture yet of the origins of the dispute between IDOC and the 
Education Justice Project. And while the department’s public statements 
about the controversy emphasized that the books had not been 
appropriately reviewed, internal IDOC emails and other documents show 
that the program was swiftly suspended and the books removed after the 
race-related themes of the some of the content were flagged.

Prison officials suspended the program and removed books only after 
finding what were described as “racially motivated cartoons” and “other 
items of concern,” including a Movement for Black Lives pamphlet on 
“Black Power, Freedom & Justice,” along with excerpts from a comic book 
that included sexually explicit images, the records indicate.

“We acknowledge this situation could have been handled differently,” 
IDOC Acting Director Rob Jeffreys told lawmakers at a hearing in July. 
He said the situation prompted the department to hire a volunteer 
coordinator and make “long overdue” revisions to its review procedure.

The Education Justice Project teaches seminars and for-credit courses to 
inmates at Danville Correctional Center, with offerings ranging from 
calculus to Intro to Critical Race Theory in Education, and the group 
has its own space and library at the prison. The program has operated at 
Danville for a decade, but amid growing tensions between EJP and prison 
officials, it was suspended for weeks and the books withheld by 
corrections officials for months before they were returned to the prison 
in June, the records show.

IDOC did not answer questions about the controversy from the Tribune or 
explain the seeming discrepancy between its public statements and the 
records. But some state lawmakers also wanted answers following a report 
by Illinois Newsroom, a downstate public media collaboration, about the 
book removal, and three legislative committees met jointly in July to 
discuss the dispute.

At that hearing in Chicago, Jeffreys didn’t talk about why the books 
were removed — saying he didn’t “want to hash into” it — and attributed 
the dispute to a lack of “sound process” and “much-needed policy 

Jeffreys has only been director since Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed him 
in May and learned of the controversy in his first week in the job, 
according to his testimony. He told lawmakers that books addressing the 
African American experience are welcome in the prison system.

Lawmakers praised the program during the hearing, and in follow-up 
interviews some said they were satisfied that the new administration 
will bring change.

“There’s been pretty wholesale change at the department and the new 
leadership has made clear this is their intention, to dig in at every 
level,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, one of three committee 
chairs to convene the July hearing.

The Education Justice Project runs a college-in-prison program for 
inmates at Danville Correctional Center. Prison officials recently 
removed from the program's library or denied entry to more than 200 
books, including those shown here, many dealing with race.

The Education Justice Project runs a college-in-prison program for 
inmates at Danville Correctional Center. Prison officials recently 
removed from the program's library or denied entry to more than 200 
books, including those shown here, many dealing with race. (Zbigniew 
Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

          'Huck Finn’ yes, ‘Slave Girl’ no

The flap between the U. of I. program and IDOC officials started in 
November, when EJP began the review process for the upcoming semester’s 
books and course materials. That’s when a corrections lieutenant told 
program officials that the problem with the materials were that they 
were “racial,” according to testimony by EJP Director Rebecca Ginsburg.

The EJP library is separate from the prison library, and it follows a 
separate review process from reading materials sent to inmates through 
the prison mailroom. But Ginsburg told lawmakers the review policy has 
gone through seven revisions over the past four years.

In this case, records show, EJP submitted 25 books for approval. Of 
those, four were denied outright, nine were allowed in for review but 
then denied and 12 were approved. Among the books not allowed in for 
review was “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government 
Segregated America.” Books denied after review for the spring semester 
deal largely with race and social issues, including “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” 
by Harriet Beecher Stowe and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by 
Harriet Jacobs, both written in the 1800s.

The 12 books granted full approval included general collections of 
American literature, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, 
“Notes on the State of Virginia and the Declaration of Independence” and 
“Learning to Program with Python,” a computer science book.

In addition, three so-called course readers — compilations of excerpts 
from various sources — were approved for use but with some sections 
removed, Ginsburg told legislators.

“It was the first time we had been ever asked to literally tear pages 
out of course materials,” she said.

Around the time the course materials were denied, prison officials found 
rule violations connected to the program, the records show: A printout 
of an email about “racial disparity problems within the EJP program" was 
found in an inmate’s cell, Ginsburg attempted to bring a memory card 
into the prison and someone attempted to mail photos of an EJP ceremony, 
taken from Ginsburg’s Flickr account, to an inmate. Ginsburg told 
investigators she was simply bringing the memory card to the internal 
affairs office, where she’s been allowed to store it in the past. 
Investigators faulted her for posting photos of EJP events, though she 
said she had done so for years with no problems.

Those three events prompted the warden to open an internal affairs 
investigation, documents show. A summary included in the investigative 
file found Ginsburg violated policy by posting photos from within the 
prison without having prison approval.

That investigation was ongoing as EJP staff members tried to bring 
materials into the prison for the upcoming semester on Jan. 10, 
according to records.

Despite a December memo from an assistant warden to the prison’s main 
gate listing materials “approved” to be brought in on Jan. 10, the same 
assistant warden then indicated the materials needed to be screened 
again, saying the December memo only allowed the materials in for 
review, IDOC records show.

EJP officials disputes that, noting that they brought several copies of 
each book in for the first day of the semester and that past reviews 
were done prior to the new school term starting.

Whatever the case, it was during that review that prison officials said 
they found readers “that contained numerous racial issues,” including 
“cartoons that were racially motivated," according to the documents. 
That prompted officials to check other materials already inside EJP’s 
resource room, where it was discovered there were “several racially 
motivated books, a book on the Hell’s Angels and books of anime 
pornography,” according to an email sent the following day by a 
corrections lieutenant to the warden.

The memo also noted the EJP handbook “contained an entire section about 
Diversity and Inclusion ... which is an issue that is currently under 

The same day, Jan. 11, the warden notified other corrections officials 
via email: “Due to the events of the past few weeks we are cancelling 
all EJP classes, meetings and events until further notice.”

Later that month, the warden also directed staff members to remove from 
the EJP resource room “any books/items of a controversial nature to be 
reviewed further.” About 200 items were removed, most of which had 
themes around race or incarceration, including “Race Matters” by Cornell 
West, “Colored People: A Memoir" by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and “My Daddy 
Is in Jail,” a children’s book.

The records show that those who run the EJP program and other University 
of Illinois officials then spent the next several months seeking answers 
about the books’ removal, attempting to have them returned to EJP and 
then be allowed to bring them back into the prison for use in their 
classes. In late June, after another review by prison officials, the 
books were returned to the prison, IDOC documents show.

That decision was made after media inquiries about the controversy. In a 
statement released to the Tribune and other media outlets the same 
month, a spokesperson would only say that the books had not followed a 
review process. The materials removed, the statement said, “had entered 
Danville ... without being appropriately reviewed.” The statement did 
not mention that department officers were directed to find course 
materials that were “controversial” or that what they chose to remove 
dealt largely with race.

But in addition to the references in the IDOC documents to the racial 
nature of some of the material, Ginsburg testified in front of lawmakers 
that one prison official called the books “divisive” and that another 
official, in explaining why the books were problematic, told one of her 
EJP colleagues: “It’s the racial stuff.”

It’s not clear whether any other criteria were given to correctional 
officers when they removed the books; a spokesperson declined to answer 
questions about the removal, or the discrepancy between her initial 
statements and records released by the agency.

Though the university program itself was reinstated at the end of 
January, about three weeks after it was suspended, the books that were 
removed weren’t available for the program to use.

Alan Mills, director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, also testified 
at the July hearing, saying it’s unclear why “divisive” material should 
be of note. He said that because the term is subjective, it wouldn’t 
meet the criteria for censorship established in a U.S. Supreme Court 

At the July hearing, lawmakers said they didn’t want to have to use 
legislation to fix the problem, instead hoping the new director can 
implement a policy that would allow inmates access to education without 
disruptions like this.

“The hearing really made it clear that we want (the) state of Illinois 
to have a clear and fair statewide policy that allows incarcerated 
students to pursue their education and their studies free from undue 
interference,” said state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, chair of the 
House Higher Education Committee.

Jeffreys, the acting IDOC chief, told lawmakers the department will 
“work through” the issue.

“While I’ve only been on this job a couple weeks, I can assure you this: 
I am committing to ensuring that rehabilitation programming is available 
to all men and women in our care. I believe expanding educational and 
vocational opportunities is a key to breaking the cycle of incarceration 
for thousands of Illinois’ families,” he said.

“It’s not us against the programs. That program is part of our fabric of 
how we run facilities,” he said. “Programs are our No. 1 security 
application. ... Because if you keep folks busy, if you keep them 
programmed, challenge their thinking to change their behavior, it makes 
for a better run facility.”

/pnickeas at chicagotribune.com/


Peter Nickeas is a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune. 
He joined the Tribune in 2011 and covered violence for the Tribune’s 
breaking news desk for seven years. He was a 2018 fellow at the Dart 
Center for Journalism and Trauma and a 2019 fellow at the Nieman 
Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

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