Advocates throw the book at Danville prison


Listen to this article

Submit your Letter to the Editor here

DANVILLE — Holly Clingan had braced herself for the missing books.

But when she stepped into the University of Illinois' Education Justice Project community library at the Danville Correctional Center and looked around, she felt like she'd been punched in the gut.

There were holes here and there on the shelves holding the nonfiction collection, and the 300 section looked like it had been pillaged.

"That's the social-sciences section," said Clingan, the librarian going on six years. "It had our books on black history, slave narratives, white supremacy and racism, the post civil rights era, ethnicity."

Also missing: the group's "Mapping Your Future: A Guide to Successful Reentry 2017-2018" and other materials that were carefully curated to help incarcerated students at the medium-security prison on the outskirts of Danville make a successful transition back to their community after their release.

"It's really disheartening to see that those types of things are just gone," Clingan said.

Between November 2018 and January, Danville prison staff banned, censored or removed from the library more than 220 publications that the UI group sought to use for its college-in-prison program.

Among the materials: Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the Booker T. Washington autobiography "Up From Slavery," "Race Matters" by Harvard scholar Cornell West and "Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America," winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Rebecca Ginsburg, co-founder and director of the award-winning UI program, said she has yet to receive any response in writing from the medium/maximum-security prison or the Illinois Department of Corrections to her multiple inquiries as to the reason for the censorship.

"I have been given different explanations verbally," said Ginsburg, who was told on one occasion that the books about race were removed "because race is considered an inflammatory topic. Later, their explanation changed, and I was told the books had been removed because they hadn't gone through the proper review process. I don't find any of those explanations credible. Many were pre-approved course materials that have been in the library for several years."

"It feels like this is an excuse to interrupt our good-faith effort to provide quality higher education to the incarcerated men at Danville," she continued. "Those were thousands of dollars worth of books — and a disruption to our program. ... I find this outrageous. But unfortunately, to the people who are incarcerated, this is just one of a series of indignities that they face by virtue of their imprisonment."

Corrections department mum: 'We remain hopeful'

Neither Danville Warden Victor Calloway nor Anita Bazile-Sawyer, the corrections department's chief of programs and support services, responded to News-Gazette Media's interview requests or questions about the prison system's publications review policy or why the materials were censored.

The department's only response: "Education is a critical component of rehabilitation for those who are incarcerated and (the department) values our partnership with the University of Illinois and the Education Justice Project. 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.

"We aim to review the books and return them to the facility, and while we have not yet received them back from the Education Justice Project, we remain hopeful this will occur."

Under state law, the corrections department can restrict books determined to be obscene or "detrimental to security, good order, rehabilitation or discipline or if it might facilitate criminal activity or be detrimental to mental health needs of an offender as determined by a mental health professional," said Brian Dolinar, of the Freedom to Learn Campaign.

Dolinar taught history and African-American studies at the UI and is the editor of one of the removed books, "The Negro in Illinois: The WPA." He helped form the coalition of programs and educators dedicated to quality higher-education opportunities for incarcerated people in Illinois in response to the ban.

While the state has an official list of books banned from prisons, Dolinar pointed out that most are pornographic. He added none that were removed or denied in Danville were on the list.

"None of them can reasonably be considered threats to security or discipline," he said.

"If anything, learning about the contexts of one's life and condition is supportive of rehabilitation, mental health and social well-being," he continued, adding the prison's decision to censor the materials "contradicts sound public policy, best practices and the department's own regulations."

Torres: 'Escape from the prison environment'

Launched in 2008, the Education Justice Project is one of the longest-running college-in-prison programs in the U.S. and has served as a model for others throughout the country.

Ginsburg said 221 incarcerated students have taken 300- to 400-level UI courses in a variety of disciplines, earning college credit or certificates in humanities or education studies. Fifty-four were enrolled this spring in classes, including Urban Communities and Public Policy and Calculus II.

Ginsburg said many alumni have continued their studies after being released. Some have earned their bachelor's degree, and three have earned their master's.

"And now we have graduates who are going on to get their Ph.D.s," she said. "That's extraordinary considering most people who come to prison don't even have a high school diploma or GED."

Beyond the students who take for-credit courses, Ginsburg said the project also serves members of the general population who participate in its English as a Second Language and CAVE anti-violence programs, which are led by Education Justice Project students.

That's the case with the library, Ginsburg said. Separate from the prison library, the EJP's library consists of two rooms — one for nonfiction, the other for primarily fiction — maintained by student staffers.

"They catalog material, check books in and out, help fellow students find resources," Clingan said. "They take a lot of pride in our collection and their work. They're there to serve other students."

"It was definitely an escape from the prison environment," said Augie Torres, an EJP student from 2010 until his release in 2014.

In the library, he could settle back in one of the comfortable armchairs tucked in a corner and delve into a book "not only for a course, but just for enjoyment and personal development." Or he could sit at table with other students "and engage in conversation or test some of the theories you read about."

In that sanctuary, "they're free to be scholars, academics," added Clingan, who started volunteering with the program while working on her master's degree in library sciences. "It's also a space for community and healthy debate. A space where they can exchange ideas and learn from each other. They might have to put on a different mask when they go back where that's not always found or tolerated."

Torres, who was incarcerated for 20 years, dropped out of high school. He earned his GED at Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, then put in for a transfer to Danville because he wanted to continue his studies.

He initially took classes and jobs to gain the knowledge and skills he'd need to successfully re-enter society and rebuild his life. It was in the EJP library and classrooms, he said, where he developed a love for learning and desire to use his knowledge to help others.

After his release, Torres continued his studies at Governor's State University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2017. He's now a business development and community engagement director at Edovo, a telecommunications company providing, among other things, education to incarcerated students through wireless tablets.

Ginsburg: 'An attempt to be mean-spirited'

While Clingan weeds the collection as needed, she said it contained roughly 4,000 items last December. The materials came from courses taught over the years. Some were purchased through Andrew Mellon Foundation grant funds. Many were donated by the public, even a few publishers.

In January, Ginsburg received an email from Lance Pittman, the EJP's director of academic programs, about the book culling, "though we didn't know the extent of it at that time."

"Our students actually saw it happening," Clingan said. "They saw Internal Affairs guards in our room kind of going through the shelves and tossing books in boxes.

"They were given to Lance, and he was told to take them out," Clingan said of the boxes, which now sit in the EJP's offices in Champaign.

Earlier this month, the prison suspended the program just as the spring semester was starting.

"They were investigating the program for reasons that we've never been told," Ginsburg said, noting "while disappointing, that's business as usual with the Department of Corrections."

Not only had the start of the semester been delayed a couple of weeks by the investigation — and then a few more days by a snowstorm — but Ginsburg said prison staff had confiscated course materials that had already been approved.

"Internal Affairs said they needed to do an additional review of the material," she said.

"After that review ended, they approved the distribution provided that we censor four pages of the reader," continued Ginsburg, who gave instructors the option of removing the pages or selecting other materials. "They had to go into an office and literally rip out the pages that were indicated with yellow Post-it notes. It was very painful to do that."

When Ginsburg finally had a chance to look at the full list of removed and denied books, she was horrified, then outraged to see that the ban targeted people of color — the majority of incarcerated people in the U.S. — and other marginalized groups.

"It's demoralizing, and I don't believe that it can be interpreted as anything other than an attempt to be mean-spirited," said Ginsburg, who shared her horror on social media.

Ex-instructor: 'To me, they're college students'

Erin Castro and Peter Campbell, both former EJP instructors, were appalled when they learned of the censorship and confused to see books they taught or recommended were on the list when they'd been approved for their classes several years ago.

Castro, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Utah and co-director of its Prison Education Project, used the "Shame of the National: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America," Jonathan Kozol's seminal work on disparities between academically struggling, dilapidated, inner-city schools, attended by mainly black and Hispanic students, and those in affluent suburbs, attended by their mainly white counterparts.

Campbell, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, used John Sloop's "Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture" in his argumentation class.

Though incarcerated, "to me, they're college students," Campbell said. "They're there to learn and critically engage with the material. The entire premise of the class rested on the idea we could read, discuss and even argue about kind of difficult material. ... It helped us all think through this relationship between gender and language and how we talk about things."

Castro and Campbell each said the notion that their class materials or other books on the list would incite violence among students or encourage them to break the law is absurd.

"They're participating in college in ways we would expect college students to participate," said Castro, whose experience volunteering as an EJP instructor led her to help start the Utah college-in-prison program. "And they're only able to do that because of the resources to which they have access.

"When you decide to haphazardly and blatantly and racistly censor what students have access to, you're limiting their educational possibility and without rationale."

Castro added that many of these students didn't make a meaningful connection to school when they were younger.

"In college, especially for students who are part of minoritized identities, it's the first time that they're really able to connect with their own history, their own culture," she said. "So when you decide to take all of the books talking about race out of the library, you're essentially telling people of color: Your life, your history, your culture doesn't matter.

"You've denied them the opportunity that most college students are given — to learn these histories and become more self-aware of where they came from."

In prison, "the library is a place where you can imagine even for the tiniest second that you're just a group of students and a professor," Campbell said, adding it is designed to be "a human space" by the students and staff who built it.

"I think removing books that are about what it means to be human and how we can better live with each other ... is a reminder that this place is about punishment. I think that's why these books, especially those that had been previously approved, have been removed."

Torres agrees.

He cited the works of philosophers Michel Foucault, who is on the list, and Paulo Freire, both of whom wrote about oppression and "how knowledge is power ... and has the power to liberate the oppressed.

"I think a lot of the books that are banned in institutions are banned in communist countries because they speak to oppression, and how you can overcome it through knowledge. I think whoever made the decision (regarding the EJP materials) understands that knowledge can free a lot of minds and help the oppressed become advocates of social justice."

UI: 'Eager to expand the partnership'

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler issued a statement on behalf of the university.

It read: "As an institution that places the highest values on academic freedom, free speech and educational opportunity for all, we are proud of the work the Education Justice Project does to provide college-level courses to incarcerated men, who are trying to use education as a path to a new and better future.

"This program has historically enjoyed bipartisan support, and with a new state government administration in place, this is an opportunity to work together to strengthen our partnership and provide sustained access to a rigorous education and a framework for critical self-reflection to incarcerated people. I have met recently with officials at the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Danville Correctional Center, and we reaffirmed our joint commitment to the shared responsibility of this effort. We all are eager to expand the partnership through potential initiatives such as a terminal degree program.

"Our vision for the future, as we celebrate the program's 10th anniversary, is to build hope for incarcerated people, their families and communities, reduce recidivism and make Illinois a model for prison education across the nation."

Ginsburg wonders, however, how university officials would agree to investing time and money in launching a degree program if the prison system can't be trusted to not impede or even undermine it.

In addition to working with the Freedom to Learn Campaign members, Ginsburg said she hopes to work with state Rep. Carol Ammons, who was outraged by the ban, to pass legislative or administrative remedies to "better ensure that higher education programs across the state are protected and can do their work without interference.

"We would appreciate the public contacting their elected representatives to let them know how they feel," she said.

Clingan said the ban was probably more shocking to people "on the outside than it was to our students. I think they're in such a dehumanizing environment, they're probably more accustomed to this arbitrary treatment. There's usually something disappointing that happens each semester. Materials for a class or a speaker is denied. This don't always happen like they're supposed to, but we keep showing up.

"There's a great quote from Thurgood Marshall (the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice) that's in the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights. It says: 'When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.'

"That's how I approach this work," Clingan said, adding that the "EJP is so much more than helping students assimilate back into society or 'educating the inmate.' It's treating our students like people, not prisoners, and making sure that they continue to feel human.

"I hope this campaign that Rebecca has started catches fire, and people call out this behavior."

Corrections department's policy

In response to questions from News-Gazette Media, Lindsey Hess, media administrator for the Illinois Department of Corrections, provided the department’s seven-page policy on Friday. It includes eight criteria under which a publication may be disapproved:

➜ It is obscene, which is defined as: "any material that the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, would find that, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; and the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, would find that it depicts or describes in a patently offensive way, ultimate sexual acts or sadomasochistic sexual acts, whether normal or perverted, actual or simulated, or masturbation, excretory functions or lewd exhibition of the genitals; and taken as a whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

➜ It is written in code or facilitates communication between offenders.

➜ It depicts, describes or encourages activities that may lead to the use of physical violence or group disruption or it facilitates organizational activity without approval of the chief administrative officer.

➜ It advocates or encourages violence, hatred or group disruption or it poses an intolerable risk of violence or disruption.

➜ It encourages or instructs in the commission of criminal activity.

➜ It includes sexually explicit material that by its nature or content poses a threat to security, good order of the facility, or discipline or it facilitates criminal activity.

➜ It is otherwise detrimental to security, good order of the facility, rehabilitation or discipline, or it might facilitate criminal activity or be detrimental to mental health.


Noelle McGee is a Danville-based reporter at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@n_mcgee).