CHICAGO — 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 oversight."
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.
'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.
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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.
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 investigation."
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.
Lack of proper review?
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 precedent.
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."