August 2019 | XXXVIII. Issue 4 »

Censorship in Prison Libraries: Danville and Beyond

July 29, 2019
Kendall Harvey, Illinois Library Association

In May 2019, the Illinois library community received an alarming bit of news: Between November 2018 and late January 2019, more than 200 books were removed, censored, or banned from the Education Justice Project library at the Danville Correctional Center, located in East Central Illinois.1  Among these books were titles such as Up From Slavery  by Booker T. Washington; Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and The End of Violence in Inner-City America by David M. Kennedy, and “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.

This particular library, located inside two rooms within the prison’s education wing, was established and staffed by the Education Justice Project (EJP), a college-in-prison program that offers University of Illinois classes and other resources to incarcerated men at the medium/maximum-security Danville Correctional Center. EJP has been offering courses at the prison since 2009, through which incarcerated students can obtain college credit or certificates in education and the humanities. EJP also offers English as a Second Language and anti-violence programs, and hosts guest speaker events and poetry readings.

EJP students are University of Illinois students, and so also have access to Interlibrary Loan materials from U of I libraries. Students complete loan requests for specific titles or topics of study, and the requested items are provided by the EJP librarian—if the items pass the correctional facility’s clearance process.

The decision to remove these books from the library’s collection was not mandated by EJP or the program librarian, but by prison officials. The Illinois Department of Corrections published this official statement on the removal: “Per (department) policy, all publications must be reviewed for admittance into Department facilities. When it was discovered that books had entered Danville Correctional Center without being appropriately reviewed, they were removed from the facility.”2  However, EJP representatives contest this explanation. According to EJP Community Librarian Holly Clingan, “We’ve been operating for a long time with rules on the submittal of resources which unfortunately periodically and arbitrarily change for no reason.” What the program hasn’t received from the correctional facility, Clingan says, is a clear and fair policy to help eliminate this kind of censorship.

The themes addressed by the books that were removed from the library include critical pedagogy and learning, race, African American history, slave narratives, human struggle and suffering, the Holocaust, and gay culture and gender identity.

The restriction of library materials that may provoke critical thinking on certain topics or offer critiques of the criminal justice system is not an experience unique to Danville Correctional Center. Earlier this year, the Arizona Department of Corrections banned Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler from all Arizona correctional centers. This ban was enacted on the basis that the contents of Butler’s book—an award-winning exploration of prevailing racism in America’s criminal justice system—are “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation” of Arizona prisons.3

In Texas, inmates can read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf  as well as two books by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.4 The Color Purple by Alice Walker, however, is prohibited.

Prison libraries and their staff also face other roadblocks, such as lack of funding. In 2017, the Illinois Department of Corrections spent a total of only $267 on books for educational programming across 28 correctional facilities.5 This is a shockingly substantial decrease from the approximately $750,000 spent on books annually in the early 2000’s. In 2015, the state of Illinois appropriated to the Department of Corrections a budget of $17 million for “Educational Programming.” $180,000 of the budgeted amount—or 1%—was actually used.6

According to a 2015 report published by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (SPAC), cutting costs in the short-term won’t necessarily lead to positive long-term effects.7 SPAC found that 48% of Illinois inmates released from prison each year will return to prison within three years, and the cost of just one recidivism event is nearly $119,000. Funding programs with potential to reduce recidivism rates would be a major step towards lightening the financial burden of the Illinois Department of Corrections over time.

A separate study, conducted by the RAND Corporation in 2013, indicates that educational correctional programs such as EJP have the potential to do just that. According to the study, “inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.” For every $1 invested in the program, the prison will save on incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years following an inmate’s release. The study also notes that employment after release was 13% higher among former inmates who participated in either academic or vocational programs than those who did not.

Given these statistics, supporting libraries and educational programs within prisons appears to be a choice that carries obvious benefits all around. If that’s the case, though, then why do correctional departments seem to be cracking down on inmates’ access to reading material?

According to Holly Clingan, “there is a lot of tension about how people view this work.” Clingan contends that the work of EJP and similar programs is disruptive to the standard corrections model, in that “knowledge can free oppressed minds.” Several of the books removed from the EJP library deal with topics pertaining specifically to Black history and the role of race in the American criminal justice system. In Illinois, 58% of incarcerated people are Black, even though Black individuals account for less than 15% of the state’s overall population.

In March 2019, as a direct result of the removal of books from the EJP library at Danville Correctional Center, EJP Director Rebecca Ginsburg launched an initiative called the Freedom to Learn Campaign. The Freedom to Learn Campaign advocates for access to quality higher education programming for inmates throughout Illinois, citing the value of “opening minds and creating opportunities.”

Investing federal, state, and local funds into these types of opportunities in prisons is the most efficient way to achieve measurable results. In 2015, the Obama administration announced the Second Chance Pell Program9, which allowed 12,000 student inmates nationwide to take college-level courses while incarcerated. In 2017, New York governor Andrew Cuomo awarded more than $7 million to colleges to offer classes in prisons.10  In Illinois, librarians and other supporters can advocate for lawmakers to ensure that prisoners have greater access to books and educational materials, and that more state and local funds are allocated to the purchase of such items.

On July 8, 2019, three Illinois House of Representatives committees held a subject matter hearing to discuss this act of censorship: the Public Safety Appropriations committee, Higher Education committee, and Higher Education Appropriations committee. Aside from Rebecca Ginsberg and Holly Clingan, representatives from the Uptown People’s Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the John Howard Association of Illinois were also in attendance and presented cases for developing stronger policies to work against unnecessary censorship.

Acting Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections Rob Jeffreys was also present to speak on the topic. According to Director Jeffreys, all but 14 of the 202 titles that were removed from Danville Correctional Center had been returned to the library as of Friday, July 5. However, Director Jeffreys offered acknowledgment that a policy overhaul regarding IDOC review, censorship, and appeal processes is long overdue, and he gave verbal assurance that he would utilize his recently appointed position as Director to implement change.

While ultimately the reduction in recidivism rates as a result of correctional education programs makes a compelling case to limit banning books in prison libraries, it’s important to remember that inmates are people with rights, regardless of whether or not they re-offend. The American Library Association’s “Prisoners’ Right to Read” statement puts it this way:

“Participation in a democratic society requires unfettered access to current social, political, legal, economic, cultural, scientific, and religious information. Information and ideas available outside the prison are essential to people who are incarcerated for a successful transition to freedom. Learning to thrive in a free society requires access to a wide range of knowledge. Suppression of ideas does not prepare people of any age who are incarcerated for life in a free society. Even those individuals who are incarcerated for life require access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world.”

Holly Clingan is in agreement. “We treat students like people, not prisoners,” she says. “Providing a library serves the human condition—it’s not just about being able to assimilate back into society or educating ‘the inmate,’ it is about being treated like a human being.”

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