Illinois prison officials adopt new rule that bars digital material

Faced with lawsuits over past bans on books and correspondence, the Illinois Department of Corrections enacted a new regulation. But attorneys for prisoners immediately blasted the new rules, which ban anything that is downloaded from the internet, as "draconian and unconstitutional."

UPDATE (11/8/19,  3:45 p.m.) The department has said it will revise its new rule to clarify that digital media will not be barred.

UPDATE (11/8/19, 2:00 pm): This article has been updated to incorporate a press release from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Illinois corrections officials have issued a sweeping new regulation covering prisoners’ access to reading materials that the department director cites as offering prisoners “expanding opportunities for educational materials.”

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But the regulation came under immediate criticism from prisoner’s rights and first amendment lawyers for a provision that prohibits prisoners from receiving materials downloaded from the internet. Legal experts said the rule appeared to be overbroad, apparently banning articles from digital publications such as Injustice Watch, ProPublica, The Appeal, or even digital versions of daily newspapers or the Marshall Project.

The restriction on downloaded reading materials  is included in the administrative directive that became effective Nov. 1.

Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which represents prisoners in several of pending federal cases, called the new regulation “draconian and unconstitutional.”

On Friday the department issued a press release stating the policy is designed to ensure a review process with “more oversight and consistency in order to increase access to reading and educational materials.”

The press release quotes director Rob Jeffreys as saying, “I am pleased the Department now has a process for publication reviews that is sound and meets national standards. This administration is committed to expanding opportunities for educational advancement while maintaining the safety and security of our institutions.”

Department spokeswoman Lindsey Hess did not respond to questions about the provision banning materials from the internet.

The department is facing several lawsuits over a series of instances in which prisoners’ access to information was restricted.  After the prison in Danville removed a selection of books about race and racism, including by leading scholars, Jeffreys told legislators that revising the rules was a priority.

The new directive states publications cannot be disapproved “solely based on social, sexual, religious, philosophical, or political content.” But included is a provision that  “copied materials, including photocopies or material downloaded and printed from a computer, are prohibited and shall not be accepted…”

The directive adds that material “received for educational programs or legal documents,”  as well as “newspaper clippings, wedding announcements, etc. with personal correspondence,” are still permitted.

Prison systems generally have wide latitude to adopt rules to ensure security, though that authority cannot improperly limit the constitutional rights of prisoners.

The regulation gives prison officials authority to ban materials deemed  “detrimental to the security or good order of the facility” among several other categories.

The prisons also may disallow materials, under the new regulation, that “blatantly encourages activities that may lead to the use of physical violence or group disruption,” “facilitates unauthorized organizational activity,” or “overtly advocates or encourages violence, hatred or group disruption.”

The new regulations, attorney Mills said, “effectively allow prison officials to ban any material they do not like. These rules are bad policy, needlessly punitive, and violate the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press.”

Other legal experts raised similar concerns.

David Shapiro of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law said that the regulation appeared to violate constitutional limits both by the broad nature of the prohibition and because of limits on  the department’s notification to senders that the material was prohibited.

Said First Amendment lawyer David L. Hudson Jr., of Nashville, “It is unfortunate that the Illinois Department of Corrections has adopted a policy that discriminates against online reading material and deprives prisoners of an important avenue to receive information and ideas.”