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IDOC To Implement New Policy To Prevent Arbitrary Censorship Of Books

Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Newsroom
These are two books that were removed from the Education Justice Project's library inside the Danville Correctional Center.

The Illinois Department of Corrections will implement a new publication review policy in October. The change comes after staff at the Danville Correctional Center removed more than 200 books from a college-in-prison program’s library at the facility earlier this year. 

IDOC Director Rob Jeffreys said the intention of the new policy is to prevent any arbitrary acts of censorship from playing out at state prisons. He said the change will take effect Oct. 1. Details of the new policy will be made public at that time.

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show that two staff members at the Danville prison — the facility’s warden and the head of its internal affairs unit — removed the books from the library of the Education Justice Project (EJP) because they considered books about race to be controversial. The material included children’s books about coping with an incarcerated parent, and books by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others.

The EJP program offers University of Illinois classes to a select group of men incarcerated at the Danville prison. The books were returned to the EJP library inside the Danville prison this summer after public outcry, and after a legislative hearing was called to discuss the issue.

When asked about the removal, IDOC officials initially claimed the books were removed because they weren’t properly reviewed. 

Jeffreys assumed his position as head of the state prison system shortly after Illinois Newsroom broke the story about the book removal. When asked why prison officials were not more forthcoming about the reason for the removal, Jeffreys said, “I don’t know why it was not transparent in the past, but the only thing I can do is concentrate on what we’re trying to do moving forward.”

“I don’t know why it was not transparent in the past, but the only thing I can do is concentrate on what we’re trying to do moving forward.”Rob Jeffreys, IDOC Director

He said staff at the Danville prison lacked consistent oversight and a strong publication review policy to consult. 

“And so when you don’t have those things, then that’s when you have people making arbitrary decisions based on gut feeling, their perception or their subjectivity,” Jeffreys said. 

He said the new policy will require that censorship decisions made at the prison level be reviewed by staff at the prison system’s central office. 

“That way we will have another set of eyes looking at anything that’s been denied,” Jeffreys said. He said the new policy will also include an appeals process. 

“In addition, I’ve also asked for the National Institute of Corrections to come in and review our new policy to make sure our publication review process is meeting the national standard — and also looking at all our library programs to make sure we are providing the best type of quality programming for our offenders as well,” Jeffreys said. 

IDOC requested and received roughly $350,000 to spend on educational materials, including books, this fiscal year. The request came after Illinois Newsroom reported that the prison system spent less than $300 on books in 2017. 

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

Lee V. Gaines is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, Crain’s, the Pacific Standard and the Marshall Project. She also recently completed a fellowship with Chicago non-profit journalism lab, City Bureau.