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Illinois DOC Interferes with Prisoners’ College Program by Removing Books

by Ed Lyon

For over a decade, the Education Justice Program (EJP), an extension of the University of Illinois, has taught classes at the Danville Correctional Center (DCC), a facility in the east-central part of the state run by the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC). Core classes in subjects like calculus are offered to prisoners, as well as humanities-centered courses like Critical Race Theory in Education.

In 2017, the DOC spent a total of $300 on materials for libraries in over two dozen prisons, an indication that DCC’s general population library does not have the materials needed to support a college-level study program. Thus, EJP is allowed to maintain a separate library at the facility. The student prisoners “are actually student librarians,” said Holly Clingan, who has volunteered with the program to help manage the library for the last five years.

“They catalog,” she said. “They maintain the spaces. They check books in and out. They help with research questions, guide the other students that are in program to the resources.”

The EJP library is subjected to a review process separate from the process that reviews books sent to prisoners through the mail. With some of the books in the EJP library having been donated by current and former prisoners, many of its 4,000 titles received both types of review.

The arrangement worked well for over a decade until November 2018. At that time, new books that were submitted for review began to be summarily denied. Others that did receive approval were held by the prison for weeks, delaying the start of the EJP’s 2019 spring term. Finally, in January 2019, the program was suspended and prison officials removed over 200 books from its library.

“I felt sick,” recalled the program’s director, Rebecca Ginsburg.

As she later discovered, Charles Campbell, the head of DCC’s internal affairs, had inspected the books and advised warden Victor Calloway that they were “racially motivated.” Among the titles that Calloway then agreed to confiscate were Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Race Matters, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and Visiting Day,which is a book written for children of incarcerated parents.

“I’m stunned,” Ginsburg said after learning what had happened. “I’m stunned that the order to remove books wholesale would have been coming from the warden without authority from a higher up. I am stunned that the order was made with such vague wording.”

Ginsburg insisted that nothing in the books was intended to provoke “anti-white feelings,” only “to help students better understand historical context – that’s clearly the purpose here.”

But outgoing DOC director John Baldwin said, “Somehow, a lot of books got into the institution without going through our review process. That was our fault. We let books in and some of them maybe shouldn’t have been, [though] some of them are very good books.”

EJP might still be fighting the removal of the books were it not for media outlet Illinois Newsroom, which obtained emails pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests that showed not all of the books had skipped the review process. Some were previously approved by prison staff to enter the facility, while some arrived with other titles that were not removed. Asked to explain those discrepancies, Baldwin said, “I have no idea.”

The DOC has since relented and allowed EJP to submit the censored books for review and approval. But prison officials still haven’t made it easy.

“It takes sometimes months for the resources for our courses to be cleared through the clearance process,” said Clingan. “Sometimes we’re not allowed to teach particular courses because the materials are considered controversial.”

The publicity generated by EJP’s plight captured the attention of state Rep. Carol Ammons, who was upset when she saw the list of banned titles.

“Are they removing all black books?” she asked.

In July 2019, state legislators held a hearing on the situation. EJP director Ginsburg urged lawmakers to “aggressively and assertively question the Department of Corrections staff and administrators about what sort of culture permits the censorship of books on black history and the Holocaust and children coping with incarcerated parents.”

She added that she would not accept the DOC’s promises that it will stop its censorship practices, noting that “without action from the legislators or [someone] very very high up in state government, we can expect this to continue to happen.”

Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton is a criminal justice reformist in favor of prison education. She received an email from the DOC stating the confiscated books had been returned to DCC, but Ginsburg said the EJP program had yet to receive them. That’s because officials at the facility insisted on reviewing the books first. 

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Sources: earlcarl.org, prisoneducation.org, chicagotribune.com, news-gazette.com, news.stlpublicradio.org, will.illinois.edu