Cook County Jail’s paper ban infringes on intellectual freedom

The jail’s concern about drugs embedded in paper is understandable, but the ban on paper products is a ban on education, expression and exploration by those being held in jail, two university students write.

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Officials in April declared paper to be contraband in the Cook County Jail, a move that is being questioned by advocates for inmates.

Officials in April declared paper to be contraband in the Cook County Jail, a move that is being questioned by advocates for inmates.

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In April, Cook County Jail declared paper to be contraband. But as university students in the most technologically connected generation in history, we know that paper is nonetheless essential to our daily lives. We know how impossible it would be to learn or even function if our books, documents and our own paper writing were thrown away — let alone photographs, letters and more from loved ones.

These are, however, the measures the jail has chosen to implement. Concerned that illicit substances carried on paper have contributed to several recent overdose deaths, the county’s Department of Corrections has almost entirely banned paper from the facility.

Most of those being held at the jail have been told they cannot even touch their own legal documents.

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While facilitating programming at the jail, we have witnessed the rich personal development of our friends on the inside and have seen how the ban has been devastating to their already strained access to legal support, educational programming and relationships with people on the outside.

Jail officials have also arbitrarily applied harsh restrictions on paper already in the possession of those being held. The jail has historically allowed five books per cell (including religious and educational books), 10 photographs and stationery.

Nevertheless, in our presence, correctional officers have several times threatened to take away these essentials. In the last two weeks, we’ve heard stories of libraries built up over years, family photographs hanging on cell walls, archives of trial documents, Bibles, textbooks, treasured letters and entire manuscripts being confiscated.

Although we can only draw from what we’ve witnessed and heard in certain divisions, these arbitrary confiscations seem to be happening across the facility. As one friend explained: “With all these practices in place, lives are still being lost and drugs are still being abused. These practices have been set forth in the name of security, but they are archaic practices to intimidate and evoke fear.”

Although their desire to address overdose deaths is understandable, the costs to the intellectual freedom of those held in the jail are simply too high.

Limited access to tablets won’t solve the problem

To ease the burden the paper ban has caused, the jail has begun offering monitored tablet computer access to a small number of detainees. However, tablet access has been infrequent and uneven. We’ve heard from multiple people in maximum security divisions who only have access to them a few times a week. Given the scope of the ban, a meager technological solution is grossly insufficient to ensure the freedom to read and write.

Even if everyone could access tablets once a day, which is far more often than they can at present, access to digital materials will never match the ubiquity of paper. Is the intellectual and moral life of people held in jail less valuable than that of us students?

This is not the first time safety concerns have been balanced against freedom and growth in jail. In 2015, Illinois courts ruled the jail’s decades-long newspaper ban, in place for similar contraband concerns, violated the First Amendment. The court wrote the ban “is an exaggerated response to the jail’s security concerns” and stated that “freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is also freedom to read.”

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Moreover, the ban puts the jail on the wrong side of the national battle for the intellectual freedom of those in jail or incarcerated. Since the latest ban has yet to be challenged, following the guidance of Illinois state courts, the jail must recognize that addressing overdose deaths cannot sacrifice access to learning.

Despite restrictive and punitive official policies, incarcerated people push constantly to pursue education and transformation. For the thousands of our neighbors on the inside barred from participation in structured programming, reading, writing and peer-to-peer education serve to make otherwise empty hours valuable.

Reading and writing serve not only as coping mechanisms but surrogates for formal education, job training, legal research, mental health care and more. In reality, a ban on paper products is a ban on education, expression and exploration — harms that far outweigh the protection against drug abuse officials hope to provide.

Another of our friends on the inside put it best: “They saw something bad, and now they’re punishing us for it. All we can do is write our wisdom on the page,” he told us, “but now we don’t even have our pages.”

Ethan Ostrow and Harley Pomper are program facilitators in Cook County Jail and students at the University of Chicago. They are writing as individuals, not on behalf of any associated organization.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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