Give the books back to the prisoners


To the Editor:

I was saddened to learn from a recent story regarding the staff at Danville Prison, here in Illinois, removed hundreds of books from the prison library – a majority, oddly enough, about race.  This was clearly misguided and will undermine valuable prison education programs.  The news also hit me hard for a very personal reason.

One of the books submitted for the library but ultimately denied from the shelves at Danville prison was ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas – An American Slave’.  It is hard to think of a book better suited to challenge and inspire than Frederick Douglas’ powerful narrative.  It is historical truth presented with no hesitation. The reader watches as Frederick Douglas becomes a man.

I have bought and distributed literally hundreds of copies of this book.  Decades ago, when I was alderman of the 4th Ward on Chicago’s South Side, I worked hard to support local schools.  I sent out individualized congratulatory certificates to the young men and women attending school in the ward as they completed the 8th grade.  A member of my staff introduced me to the inexpensive and attractive Dover edition of Frederick Douglas’ great book, suggesting that the book was a better gift for a graduate than a movie pass or a gift certificate for a pizza slice.

We placed an order with Jack Cella, the manager of the Seminary Co-op bookstore and purchased hundreds of copies of this classic to give to the young men and women I congratulated for completing the eighth grade. It was a small gesture to remind the students that while life will undoubtedly have its challenges, I felt that giving them Frederick Douglas’ story, told in his own words, could help inspire them to find a new path on their life’s journey.

I know more now than I knew then about the failures of our criminal justice system and the betrayal of so many of our young men of color, and I still believe in the power of Frederick Douglas’ truth.

Put the books back on the shelves.

Toni Preckwinkle

President, Cook County Board