Knowing there were other transgender inmates in prisons in Illinois and across the country made Leila Lee feel as though she wasn’t alone. She said it also made her want to help people like herself when she was released from prison.
Lee was introduced to the non-profit organization Black and Pink while incarcerated in Illinois prisons between 2012 and June of this year. (Leila Lee is her preferred name, not her legal name.) Black and Pink is devoted to educating incarcerated people and the general public about the experience of LGBTQ inmates. The organization has a Chicago chapter that sends newsletters, pen pal correspondence and other publications to prisoners who subscribe.
Earlier this month, the Uptown People’s Law Center and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Chicago chapter against the Illinois Department of Corrections director and the wardens of 11 state prisons, among other corrections staff.
The complaint alleges that prison staff at these facilities improperly censored material from Black and Pink “based on the status of its members and subscribers as LGBTQ people.” This censorship, the suit alleges, violates Black and Pink’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process because the non-profit wasn’t notified or given a chance to appeal the censorship.
According to the suit, 900 people in Illinois prisons subscribe to Black and Pink mailings.
Lee, who now works with the Chicago chapter of the organization, said she was denied access to Black and Pink publications on several occasions while locked up.
She said prison staff justified withholding the material by saying “we don’t like having you people reading LGBT material, or you can’t have it, period, or they just wouldn’t give us a reason at all.”
The corrections department declined to comment on the lawsuit stating the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
‘This censorship is totally random’
The lawsuit cites roughly 200 instances in which Black and Pink newsletters, holiday and greeting cards, and other publications were withheld from inmates in IDOC facilities.
The suit alleges the censorship is “part of a coordinated effort within IDOC to impose a blanket ban on Black and Pink materials.” But the complaint also alleges the censorship was arbitrary in nature — meaning in each case where materials were censored by a specific prison, those same materials were provided to inmates housed at other Illinois facilities.
“This censorship is totally random,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. “There's no way for the people on the outside to know what is and isn't allowed. There's no way for the prisoners to know what is and isn't allowed.”
The Uptown People’s Law Center filed a similar suit against IDOC staff earlier this year for alleged improper censorship of Prison Legal News, a newsletter about the criminal justice system intended specifically for an inmate audience.
Mills said prison officials are allowed to censor certain materials that may encourage violence or otherwise pose a risk to the inmate population.
“What they're not allowed to do is say, ‘Well, we don't think that LGBTQ people deserve to know about their own history or their own support or anything like that and therefore we don't think that those people should be allowed to have that sort of publication,’” he said.
An administrative directive, obtained earlier this year via a Freedom of Information Act Request, details steps prison staff are supposed to take when withholding certain publications from inmates.
The directive states that wardens are responsible for designating two employees to serve as “publication review officers.” Mailroom employees at the prisons are supposed to check any incoming publication against IDOC’s list of approved, conditionally approved and disapproved publications.
If something appears questionable to staff, but it’s not already on the list, that item is forwarded on to the review officer. The officer is then supposed to notify the intended recipient who has a week to decide if they want to proceed with a publication review. If that material was mailed directly from a publisher — like Black and Pink — the staff are supposed to send a notice to the publisher and give an opportunity for that publisher to provide documentation arguing why the inmate should be allowed to receive the material.
If the review moves forward, the review officer has a month to make a determination. They can choose to approve, conditionally approve — meaning remove any potentially offensive material — or disapprove it entirely. The warden is then responsible for approving or not approving the recommended action.
Mills said the problem is that staff in the mailrooms are making these decisions — not the wardens. The prison system, he said, “isn’t following their own rules.”
IDOC’s policy indicates several reasons why something might not be allowed into a prison, including a paragraph that lists homosexuality among “bestiality,” “sadomasochism,” “sadism,” “necrophilia” and “incest.”
A 2017 publication review of “Black and Pink News” states that parts of the newsletter were deemed to “advocate or encourage violence, hatred, or group disruption or pose an intolerable risk of violence and disruption,” and “be otherwise detrimental to security, good rehabilitation or discipline or it might facilitate criminal activity or be detrimental to mental health.” The review was obtained through a FOIA request by Illinois Newsroom for all documents relating to censorship of Black and Pink materials. The publication review officer also wrote that the pages were a “safety/security concern.”
Those pages include a letter from a gay man incarcerated in Georgia urging fellow inmates to learn the rules and regulations of their prison system as a tool to stop harassment from prison staff. The pages also include another letter from a bisexual man incarcerated in Pennsylvania encouraging inmates not to care what others think of them and to “come out of the closet.”
Mills said staff at prisons do not like to acknowledge that there are LGBTQ inmates in the prison population.
“They try to quash that as much as they can, and one way they do that is to make it very uncomfortable to be out, but also to quash all this support you get from the outside,” he said. “So it’s much harder for people to have the courage to self-identify as what they really are.”
‘There is absolutely a problem’
Much of prison library censorship appears to be “arbitrary” and is carried out by mailroom or library staff, agreed KayLee Strahan, who works for the Health Sciences Library at the University of Tennessee. She and Delaney Bullinger published an analysis of the available research on censorship in prisons, while completing their master’s degrees in library and information science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“I think there is absolutely a problem,” said Bullinger, who now works as a librarian at Auburn University in Alabama. “There needs to be a level of censorship because there might be some materials that are actually a safety concern. But a lot of times the policy is generalized to protect the institution, and that leads to way too much censorship.”
They recommend prison systems across the country clarify censorship policies with specific limits on what’s banned. Bullinger suggests working with groups like Black and Pink to make sure the material they send to inmates meets the prison’s standards for acceptable content.
But one of the biggest obstacles to changing policies around censorship, Strahan said, is getting people to care.
“If you get the public to care about it, that goes a long way to get the prison administration to do something about it other than whatever they want to do,” she said.
‘They are going to end up back in prison’
Lee said Black and Pink helps people find housing and jobs when they leave prison. “They really help you when you get out,” she said.
And that’s why Mills said it’s important for everyone to pay attention to these censorship cases. The biggest indicator of whether or not someone who is released will end up back in prison is if they maintain ties with people on the outside, he said.
“So the mailings are really the lifeline to the outside, and to the extent that those mailings are censored, whether it be personal correspondence or birthday cards from Black and Pink, then that breaks down their ability to make it when they get out, to not go back again and to be part of the community,” he said.
Without that support from the outside world, Lee said prisoners are more likely to go back to what they were doing previously, which often means “they are going to end up back in prison.”