For the first time in years, inmates at prisons in New Jersey and North Carolina can read The New Jim Crow, a bestselling book critiquing mass incarceration in the United States.
Around the time the New Jersey ban was lifted, after complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union, a friend tweeted me a list of other books that were banned there. One of them was familiar — it’s one of mine: The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang.
Prison officials all across the country are allowed to restrict books and magazines that are judged to be harmful to safety and security. The material on the banned lists are not allowed in prison libraries, and inmates can’t have them mailed in or have a visitor bring them. Banning material is a common procedure, and prisons have long lists. In Illinois, the practice can affect 41,188 inmates.
That had me wondering, what is banned from Illinois prisons?
I filed a public records request with the Illinois Department of Corrections. The New Jim Crow isn’t banned in Illinois, which has 32 correctional facilities.
“Illinois is much better than some of the jurisdictions that have had publicity recently about arbitrary and ridiculous decisions to censor books and other materials,” said Benjamin Wolf, legal director of the Illinois ACLU.
What’s banned, and why?
The list of banned material in Illinois fills 305 pages. Much of what’s on it is pornography and publications about guns.
But The Almighty Black P. Stone Nation, which Lance Williams and I wrote in 2011, is a social history of the street organization. It is not a guide on gangbanging. Illinois prison officials did not get back to me about why the book was banned.
There are a number of other surprising titles, such as Bruce Lee material and the late Chicagoan Sam Greenlee’s civil rights satire The Spook Who Sat by the Door.
A couple of issues of Rolling Stone magazine have been banned because they promoted marijuana use or cult activity. And pages of an issue of Prison Legal News were taken out for safety and security issues.
So how does a book or magazine get banned from an Illinois prison? Let’s take a look.
“The Illinois rule for when prison officials can censor publications leaves a lot of discrimination to prison officials, and that’s the norm around the country,” Wolf said.
The importance of books in prisons
Johnny Page said he earned an associate’s degree during his 24 years in various Illinois prisons. He’s now a graduate student in Northeastern Illinois University’s Inner-City Studies program.
He said a popular book that is banned is the bestselling 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, which is part self help, part understanding power.
Page said inmates found ways to read banned books by having people copy pages from a book and mailing a few at a time. In a month, an inmate might have the entire book.
“To be able to read those things that enrich you in ways that challenge the system — and not challenging the system in a way [that] gets you all riled up [where] you want to tear the prison walls down,” Page said. “But it gets you all riled up where you want to tear the prison walls down mentally.”
Page said reading in prison was transformative.
Still, Ben Wolf, the director of the Illinois ACLU, thinks there still needs to be a limit on what comes in.
“Some things, I think we would agree, the prison has a good reason to keep out,” he said. “For example, if somebody wanted to distribute literature about making bombs or escape plans from prison.”
What about sexual material?
Wolf said that should be let in.
“It’s perfectly natural for them to want to look at photographs or discussions of sexuality and of naked men and women,” Wolf said. “It may be the only outlet they have for some of their sexual impulses.”
He said banning items is a subjective process, and he cautions prison leadership to balance that power with attention to the rights of incarcerated individuals.
See the entire list of banned reading material in Illinois here: