More Than 200 Books on Race and Criminal Justice Removed From an Illinois Prison

More than 200 books, many of them on race, criminal justice, and history, were removed from Illinois’ Danville Correctional Center. Staff removed the books from the prison’s library in January when the correctional center also cut ties with the Education Justice Project (EJP), a college in prison program offering classes from the University of Illinois to incarcerated men. Rebecca Ginsburg, who directs the EJP, told NPR Illinois that she felt sick when she learned that prison staff had removed the books.

Among the titles removed were various books by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., abolitionist Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Jacqueline Woodson’s children’s book Visiting Day, which discusses visiting a parent in prison. Most of the books removed from EJP’s library deal with race, historical accounts from formerly enslaved people, and criminal justice. “Somehow, a lot of books got into the institution without going through our review process. That’s our fault,” John Baldwin, the outgoing Illinois Department of Corrections director, told NPR Illinois. “We let books in and some of them maybe shouldn’t have been, some of them are very good books.”

Baldwin said he had “no idea” how the prison identified books that were reportedly not subjected to a review process. The Illinois Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment. The Freedom to Learn Campaign, which counts EJP as a member, said in a statement to The North Star that the decision to remove the books “contradicts sound public policy, best practices, and the department’s own regulations.”

The campaign said the agency’s claim that the books were removed because they were not appropriately reviewed was “spurious,” noting that all the books had been approved per procedure. EJP reported that it became increasingly difficult to get books approved, forcing the program to delay teaching particular courses. In January, the entire program was suspended for an unknown reason, Ginsburg told NPR Illinois. Prison staff then entered the program’s library and removed 202 books from the estimated 4,000 titles.

Illinois has an official list of books that are banned from prison, many of them pornographic. The Department of Corrections bans material that is sexually explicit or otherwise “obscene,” makes communication between offenders easier, encourages violence, or is “otherwise detrimental to security, good order of the facility.” The Freedom to Learn Campaign acknowledged that the prison does have the authority to censor a book if that book poses a legitimate security risk, but argued that was not the case with the books that were removed from EJP’s library.

“None of the books that were censored, denied, or removed appear on that list,” the Freedom to Learn Campaign said in its statement. “None of them can reasonably [be] considered threats to security or discipline. If anything, learning about the context of one’s life and condition is supportive of rehabilitation, mental health, and social wellbeing.”

Michael Tafolla, who was formerly incarcerated at Danville Correctional Center and participated in the EJP program, told NPR Illinois that he believes race played a role in the book removal. He said the books never incited violence and instead led him to reject a life of crime and violence.

“Prisons are filled by mostly Black and Brown [people],” Tafolla said, adding that the books provide empowerment for people of color, allowing them to learn about their history and “giving them self identity, self worth and awareness of what their people, their generations have been through.”

Other states have also come under fire for banning prisoners from reading certain books. In May, the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) was criticized for barring a book that spoke about the criminal justice system’s impact on Black men. ADC officials ruled that Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Georgetown University Professor Paul Butler was potentially “detrimental to the safe, secure and orderly operation” of prison facilities.

Butler and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined forces to demand the department reconsider the ban and threatened legal action if it does not. In Illinois, Ginsburg said she was invited to resubmit the books removed from the prison for another review process. While she plans to do exactly that, she told NPR Illinois that she does not trust that the review will be fair.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.