Banning Books in Prison is Bad Policy

By Camille Garcia-Mendoza

Last week, civil rights advocates rang alarms over the censorship of reading materials about race within Illinois prisons. In response to this crackdown, our Director of Voting Rights and Civic Empowerment Ami Gandhi submitted written testimony to the Illinois House Public Safety Appropriations, Higher Education, and Higher Education Appropriations Committees to explain why unfair censorship in prison undermines education - and how it could impede an Illinois bill expected to be signed into law soon.

The issue came to public attention in late May, when a report by the Illinois Newsroom revealed that more than two hundred books had been inexplicably removed from a library at the Danville Correctional Center, a medium security prison that has long been home to a library and educational programs. The library is run by the Education Justice Project (EJP), a college-in-prison program coordinated by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

EJP noted that while the subjects of the disappeared books appeared to range from living with incarcerated parents to the Holocaust, most removed books were about race, including classics like The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Although the Danville prison warden blamed the removals on a faulty review process, emails obtained by Illinois Newsroom show the books were previously approved to enter the facility. 

Looking for answers, Illinois Representative Carol Ammons (whose district encompasses Champaign and EJP) organized a subject matter hearing in downtown Chicago on July 8, 2019 to gather information. Representative LaShawn Ford and Representative Kelly Cassidy were additional co-chairs of the hearing. Numerous legislators expressed their concerns with Illinois Department of Corrections and heard testimony from the agency’s new Director, Rob Jeffreys.

Click here to read testimonies about higher education impediments at Stateville prison.

In addition to EJP and other advocates who testified about the injustice of censorship in prison, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights joined with Chicago Votes to submit testimony explaining that unfair censorship could thwart the purpose of the recently passed  “Civics in Prison” bill (HB 2541). The bill, currently awaiting the Governor’s signature, requires peer-led civics workshops for individuals in Illinois Department of Corrections and Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice facilities within the twelve months prior to their scheduled release.

Advocates at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee have been involved in drafting and advancing this legislation to address a misinformation gap that keeps far too many incarcerated individuals from reclaiming their voting rights upon release. A critical component of HB 2541 is that the civics workshops will be led by peer educators who are also incarcerated. According to community members with criminal records who provided input on the bill, peer-led workshops will make the curriculum more relevant for returning citizens, increasing their civic participation and supporting their reentry into society. Studies show that education and civic engagement can also help reduce the rate of recidivism, or the tendency to re-offend, which stands at 43 percent in Illinois. Jeopardizing the peer-led aspect of the civics workshops by unfairly removing books endangers all of the positive outcomes of HB 2541.

Just one day after the hearing, advocates were pleased to receive confirmation from EJP that all the removed books had been returned to the Danville Correctional Center. Yet many questions about this incident remain unanswered. Without sound policies and practices regarding access to education in prison, we anticipate that restrictions to educational materials will continue to plague prisons in Illinois, which may threaten important reform efforts like the “Civics in Prison” bill (HB 2541). Chicago Lawyers’ Committee will continue to advocate for the voting rights of returning citizens and all who face barriers to exercising their right to vote.