Unbanned books

Some of the 220-plus books that the Illinois Department of Corrections had previously banned, censored or removed from the Education Justice Program library at the Danville Correctional Center.

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DANVILLE — More than 200 titles that were removed from the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Program’s library at the Danville Correctional Center in January are now back on the shelves.

EJP Director Rebecca Ginsburg said Illinois Department of Corrections staff at the medium-security prison not only re-reviewed and approved the return of the materials that were removed, but they also approved some new titles.

“We submitted our books and course materials for the fall semester,” Ginsburg said. “We got those approved in about three days, which I think is a record.”

IDOC officials said they value their partnership with the UI and “the many volunteers who demonstrate immeasurable dedication to the Education Justice Project,” and acknowledged the situation should have been handled differently.

“As a result, we are hiring a volunteer coordinator, reviewing our publication review policy and instituting an appeal process for disapproved publications,” spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said in an email.

This past spring, Ginsburg shared that between November 2018 and January, Danville prison staff had banned, censored or removed the publications, which EJP officials sought to use for its award-winning college-in-prison program.

The majority dealt with African-American history and race and included Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”; Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery”; and “Race Matters” by Harvard scholar Cornel West.

Other materials, including an EJP-written manual, served to help incarcerated students successfully re-enter society upon their release.

That prompted a public outcry and state lawmakers to hold a hearing on the matter.

IDOC officials said the books were removed from the library and put into boxes so that Danville staff could do a more thorough review. However, EJP staff removed the boxes before they had the chance.

EJP staff returned the books, as well as additional titles, to the prison in June.

The legislative hearing — organized by Democratic Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana, and co-sponsored by Reps. LaShawn Ford and Kelly Cassidy, both D-Chicago — was held in Chicago on July 8.

At the hearing, Ginsburg told lawmakers that the level of censorship was unprecedented in the 10-year-plus history of the award-winning program, which 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.

She said the only explanation she was given by prison staff was that the books were divisive, even though they had been approved for courses and in the library for years without causing any problems.

Ginsburg said that by the time of the hearing, prison staff had reviewed and approved the return of all but 10 or so of the 215 books that had been removed.

“The following day, those books were approved,” she said, adding that EJP staff put them back on the shelves and that students have access to them since then.

“Our community really did come behind us in a very humbling and encouraging way,” she said. “Many of them were ordinary Urbana-Champaign residents who felt outraged by this.”

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