‘It's Heartbreaking’ Authors Criticize The Removal Of 200 Books From An Illinois Prison Library

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 6, 2019 3:44 pm

Last week, Illinois Newsroom reported on the removal of more than 200 books from the shelves of a college in prison program’s library inside the Danville Correctional Center in east-central Illinois. The Education Justice Project offers University of Illinois classes to men at the prison.

 


Since the program was founded a decade ago, EJP staff, volunteers and students slowly built their own library collection, because the prison’s general library did not have the amount or variety of reading material required to support college-level coursework. 

Illinois prison officials say that the books were removed from the library because they did not go through a review process. Illinois Newsroom obtained emails that show at least a portion of the removed books were reviewed and approved to enter the facility by prison staff. In a statement released late last week, the Illinois Department of Corrections maintains the books were not appropriately reviewed, but has invited EJP staff to submit the books through another review process.

Several authors and editors of books that were removed from the EJP library agreed to speak to Illinois Newsroom. They include:

Jacqueline Woodson, author of “Visiting Day” — a children’s book about visiting a parent in prison.

Bill Bigelow, editor of “Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice” — a collection of essays on teaching issues of social and racial justice.

Maya Schenwar, author of “Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better” — a book about the impact incarceration has on families and communities, and moving beyond isolation-based prison models.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race” — a book about race relations in the U.S.

Below, they share their perspectives and reactions to having their books removed  from the EJP library at the Danville Correctional Center.

These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Did you know (your book) was in the Education Justice Project’s library at the Danville Correctional Center?

Jacqueline Woodson:

I knew that “Visiting Day” was being used in a lot of prison libraries and in a lot of prisons and and a lot of programs where people got a chance to read to their children whether over Skype or the telephone, or when they came to visit, which I think is an amazing thing to have to be able to read to their child.

Bill Bigelow:

No, I wasn't. I'm not surprised. The book has sold almost 200,000 copies. So there are a lot of these copies around.

I noticed that a lot of the books that were in the (EJP) library were books that dealt with issues of the origins of white supremacy, and with racial justice and also with education. And so I was really pleased that the book had been included in that, that prisoners had access to books to help them think about their own education, and how it could have been different and should have been different.

No, I wasn't. I'm not surprised. The book has sold almost 200,000 copies. So there are a lot of these copies around.

 

Maya Schenwar:

I didn't know that “Locked Down, Locked Out” was in this particular collection. But I knew that it was inside a few Illinois prisons, and that people in Illinois prisons have been reading it for quite some time.

(People in prison are) one of the primary audiences for the book. I've heard from people in prison that it's something that's been useful for them and understanding the system that's oppressing them.

Beverly Daniel Tatum:

I was surprised. I had no idea that was in the library. My book is commonly used in college classrooms all over the nation... in psychology classrooms, and education classrooms, and sociology classrooms where they're dealing with the topic of race.

What’s your reaction to the removal of your book from that library?

Woodson:

It's heartbreaking. And it's not surprising.

I think we also live in a system where there is a prison industrial complex, and black and brown bodies are being used to manufacture stuff, and be cheap labor. And because of that, of course they're not going to want them to be empowered; of course they're not going to want them to learn more; of course they're not going to want them to have the tools they need for the outside world; of course they're not going to want them to see mirrors of themselves in literature.

I'm not stunned by it. I'm completely heartbroken.

Bigelow:

I did a book on teaching about South Africa in 1985. It was banned in apartheid South Africa. And the reason was because it threatened the white authorities who wanted to keep black people oppressed.

It feels like it's part of a pattern of people who have an interest in other people not thinking and not questioning, and just putting up with the conditions that they find themselves in. People are threatened when folks become aware of that and start to challenge it. They want to block that. And they want to suppress the materials that are helping people think critically.

Schenwar:

I think the removal of these books is something that could have fit inside the story I was telling with my book. “Locked Down, Locked Out” is about this phenomenon of how prison tries to entirely isolate people, and severs them from their communities and from society.

So, I wasn't surprised. I was angry... because I think that the ways in which books are banned and books are removed from prisons are echoes of the deep injustice of the prison system itself.

Tatum:

It seems to me that the books that are being removed… all of them deal with empowerment in some way. Certainly, my book does. It talks about understanding what racism is, how racism impacts us individually and collectively, and ultimately what we can do to break the cycle of racism.

If for some reason you don't want people to learn about that, you would remove that book. It's curious to me, and I'd be very interested to know what the warden would say as to why books about race were seen as books they didn't want inmates to have access to.

The Illinois Department of Corrections publication review policy states that books may be barred from entering a prison facility if they include sexually graphic content, incite violence and hatred or are otherwise detrimental to security.

What’s your reaction to the fact that your work was removed from this library given the department’s review policy? Do you think your work falls into any of these categories?

Woodson:

It's interesting that they would think a children's books would incite violence. First and foremost “Visiting Day” is a picture book targeted at everyone who wants to read it, and mainly kids between the ages of four and 10-years-old.

I think literature is powerful. And I think that what they are more afraid of is people seeing themselves in literature and knowing that they matter. And what these books are saying is, you matter, you have a right to be in the world, you have a right to have your ideas, you have a right to have literature in the space that you're existing.

Bigelow:

Look, our book has been adopted by countless teacher education programs and school districts around the country… In the introduction it talks about creating curriculum that is grounded in the lives of our students, that's critical, that is multicultural, and anti-racist, and participatory and experiential, and hopeful and joyful.

And so it's not anything that is obscene, it's not anything that promotes violence at all, and so has no business being removed as something that could help people think more clearly about education.

Schenwar:

No, not at all. I think the thing that my book does that would probably seem the most threatening to the present system is it calls into question the system itself. It's certainly not inciting violence or encouraging anything that could be construed as violence. But it is calling into question the entire existence of the system.

The removal of these books is actually demonstrating what “Locked Down, Locked Out” is asserting, which is that this system of incarceration is inherently unjust, and is isolating and depriving people of their freedom.

 

Tatum:

Certainly nothing sexually graphic for sure. Certainly there's nothing about my book that encourages people to be violent. In fact, there's a lot in my book, I think, that encourages people to listen respectfully to each other, and to try to understand points of view different from their own.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines


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