Illustration by Meg Studer Credit: Meg Studer

Roughly two months after the Cook County Sheriff’s Office prohibited paper—any form of paper —from entering Chicago’s largest jail, Cook County Jail (CCJ), Illinois became the first state to outlaw book bans. Upon signing the bill, Governor Pritzker asserted: “Book bans are about censorship, marginalizing people, marginalizing ideas and facts. Regimes ban books, not democracies.” 

Despite the bill, in CCJ, new policies limiting paper’s entry and circulation have threatened to do just that: censor and marginalize incarcerated peoples’ access to ideas, facts, and history, and deny them access to education and self-expression, essential mechanisms for coping and self-improvement. 

Critically, the Cook County Department of Corrections spent zero dollars on library books or reading materials last year, according to the director of individuals in custody in a 2022 FOIA request. With no investment in new reading materials and the books already in the facility subject to confiscation, access to education has been greatly reduced in what was already a barren learning environment.

As volunteers operating the largest independent educational services for incarcerated people in the state, we work with hundreds of people on the inside each week. Our frequent contact with people on the inside and partnerships with educational facilitators in CCJ has put us in a unique position to see and hear how the jail is run and how its policies are implemented. This uncommon access to incarcerated people often gives us a perspective on CCJ’s policies that might not otherwise be heard by correctional officers, officials in the Sheriff’s office, or the general public. 

As we have repeatedly and frequently been told in great detail, CCJ’s policies—however intentioned—are, naturally, not always implemented according to plan. Our observations here are based on thousands of interactions with incarcerated people, rooted in our belief that their sustained, widespread feedback is essential to the public discourse surrounding CCJ and incarceration.

In a May op-ed for the Sun-Times, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart justified the new policy by citing an apparent rise in overdose deaths this year allegedly caused by paper soaked in substances entering the facility. As an organization committed to the welfare and development of our friends on the inside, we agree with Dart that we must “confront this [drug crisis] and adapt” accordingly. 

However, intensified search practices have threatened the efficacy of learning and educational programming for many incarcerated people and have ultimately harmed their well-being. The heightened security and screening of mail has jeopardized access to donated books, letters from family, and more. As we previously wrote, “after a decade without problems, our books are suddenly being rejected at high rates.” 

While Dart contends that the CCJ’s new practices aim to maintain the jail’s educational programming, in reality, these new restrictions have created an untenable learning environment. CCJ’s program facilitators have seen similarly superfluous seizure of mail and educational materials, in addition to paper materials not being approved, printed, or delivered in time for class. 

Even before these heightened restrictions, the jail reportedly seized 11,000 pieces of mail in one year. Under the guise of concerns such as stains and a no-fragrance policy, CCJ not only blocks our books from entering the jail, but routinely seizes them instead of returning them, with no recourse to us. 

Altogether, CCJ’s new mail procedures suppress the education and connection that makes life in jail livable. Reading, writing, and connection to family are not luxuries, but means of survival for the incarcerated. 

As one person incarcerated in CCJ wrote about the new policy banning any mail with a fragrance: “[in letters,] I used to smell the cologne, perfume, and the house fragrance of my family and friends and it reminded me of the outside… The jail has found another way to repress our happiness. They found a way to hack into our joy in receiving one of the few things we cherish and look forward to the most well behind bars. Our mail. One of our only ways of staying connected with the outside.” 

Some student groups have had educational materials confiscated, and said they have later been prohibited from bringing in replacements. Program facilitators have said they witnessed the seizure of Bibles and Qurans, paper shakedowns, and books tossed on the floor and thrown away by officers. Regardless of the policy’s intent, these discretionary actions taken by officers violate personal liberties.

The same restrictions that affect programming, education, and learning also hurt people incarcerated in CCJ in other ways. The delays and oversights in paper screening that hinder jail programming are equally harmful for loved ones with time-sensitive issues. While lawyers are now permitted to bring laptops into the jail as a replacement for paper, loved ones hoping to bring in important legal and financial documents are not. 

Furthermore, as one educator described, despite Sheriff Dart’s assertion that incarcerated people still have full access to their legal materials, not having access to paper can make it difficult for people to look over their own court cases.

Sheriff Dart has argued that calling these new restrictions a “ban” on paper represents an “intentionally misleading disinformation campaign aimed at scaring the public”. However, while CCJ has “not changed [their] policy” regarding the number of books allowed per person, for example, from what we have seen, their enforcement of the policy has changed. The culmination of these new practices is not a humane policy in which at least some paper is being permitted. 

In reality, all paper—regardless of its importance, urgency, or value—is presumptively banned unless granted an exception. Entering the jail, volunteers recounted that multiple signs read: “Effective immediately, the following items are not allowed inside DOC: Books, coloring books, NO SHEETS OF PAPER OF ANY KIND [among others].” 

As a result of the paper ban, officers are not only enforcing the three book limit, but, at their discretion, forcing incarcerated people to give up even the books they’re allowed to have. Dart has shrugged off the notion that this is some “ham-fistedly banning all paper”—even though that’s precisely what the enforcement of these rules amounts to. CCJ’s new practices severely limit, delay, and reduce access to paper through discretionary enforcement and excessive screening and confiscation practices.

To assuage the public’s concerns, Dart has suggested that educational electronic tablets sufficiently replace the need for paper. But from interviews conducted by facilitators across the jail’s various divisional units, it has become clear that these tablets have narrow use, value, and access. Typically, individuals can use public tablets for a few hours per day. Use is restricted to a short-form messaging service and watching educational videos to accrue points, which can then be spent on entertainment. 

But these tablets, which primarily offer consumable content, do not allow the space for self-reflection through writing and art that paper provides. For folks on the inside, writing is a critical coping mechanism. It is this space for reflection that enables emotional transformation—and is that not the purported goal of incarceration to begin with? Imagine late at night, having no activity for much of the day—all one can do is think, read, and write. A few hours of tablet use per day is incomparable to the value of paper in those many empty hours.

To stop this overdose epidemic, we believe it is essential to treat it as a health crisis first and a security problem second, using harm reduction solutions that go far beyond simply banning paper. 

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  1. This is morally wrong, one hundred percent in the opposite direction. Incarcerated individuals should be REQUIRED to read. What is going to happen when they finish serving their sentences? Are they and we better off with or without some kind of reading? The facility having budgeted zero dollars for books is, well, criminal.

  2. I have a family member who is incarcerated. They have no means of knowing what is happening in the outside world. They have no means of asking for help when the short-staffing is so severe that the work gaps begin to impact those with serious medical needs that go unmet. Even with the tablets and emails – if there is no correctional officer staffed to approve those emails- the inmates never get them. It is a problem when human beings are going without their human rights secured due to preventable labor misses. Half the available communication programs that can be carried through the tablet are not even available to the inmates at certain facilities! I know for a fact the tablets are now compatible with programs where we can send them family photos for emotional support and also allows for phone calls in times of need when the prison phone lines are not allowed access or available or the prison environment is outright too hostile to even make it to a phone to call for help. There is no excuse for allowing human beings to be denied their rights without adjustments made to support those in custody. Since when does catching a case mean dying in prison due to the prison conditions being so severe that the litigation for the lack of proper medical care is STILL ongoing due to the state NOT being able to meet the court ordered verdict to ensure human rights?

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