Donate today to triple your impact!

Illinois Department of Corrections Revises Book Ban Policy

Earlier this year, Danville prison removed about 200 books, many of which dealt with race issues. But the new rules don’t go far enough, says one advocate.

Getty Images

On Friday, the Illinois Department of Corrections adopted new rules on how books, magazines, and other publications entering the prison will be reviewed, The Appeal has learned. The directive comes after months of public outcry following one Illinois prison’s removal of about 200 books, many of which deal with issues of race.

“Publications shall not be disapproved solely because its content is religious, philosophical, political, social or sexual content, or because the content is unpopular or repugnant,” the Nov. 1 directive states. The new policy also directs the educational facility administrator to conduct an initial screening of publications for education programs.

In January, Danville Correctional Center prison warden Victor Calloway ordered publications “of a controversial nature” to be removed from the resource room of the Education Justice Project, which has run classes inside Danville for about 10 years. Prison staff removed books that focus on race and racism, such as Cornel West’s “Race Matters” and “Colored People: A Memoir” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. The books have since been returned. Though Black people account for about 14 percent of the population in Illinois, they make up over half of prisoners in the state.

In July, state legislators held hearings on the book removals. Acting Department of Corrections Director Rob Jeffreys told lawmakers then that he would revise the department policy on reviewing publications. “That has been my number one thing: to revitalize our current policy creation, review, and application,” Jeffreys said.

Under the new rules, the department still has wide discretion in determining what it can ban. Publications that meet any number of criteria can be prohibited, including content that is “detrimental to the security or good order of the facility,” “facilitates unauthorized organizational activity,” or “may be interpreted as legitimizing gang behavior.”

In a statement, Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, said that “the new rules contain vague, ill-defined standards.” For instance, Mills said, the directive includes problematic and unclear limitations on prisoners receiving computer print-outs. 

“Publications that have been redacted, altered or otherwise modified from the original published edition and copied materials, including photocopies or material downloaded and printed from a computer, are prohibited and shall not be accepted for assessment or review,” the directive states. The prohibition will not, according to the policy, apply to materials received for educational programs or legal documents. And “personal correspondence shall be handled in accordance with the standard mailroom procedures,” the directive states.

The Illinois Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Last year, Uptown People’s Law Center sued the department in two separate suits after some prisons prohibited publications from the Human Rights Defense Center, which produces Prison Legal News, and mail from the Chicago chapter of Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist organization that supports incarcerated LGBTQ people. In a third suit, filed in September 2018, the center sued the department on behalf of Heather Ann Thompson, author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” Thompson sent her book to three prisoners; one received it, and the other copies were returned.