Lawsuit alleges discrimination, free speech violations with banning LGBTQ org in prison

CHICAGO – On Thursday, attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Chicago chapter of Black & Pink, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide LGBTQ people in prison with allies on the outside. For over two years, Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) has censored communication between this organization and LGBTQ prisoners in Illinois.

Attorneys from Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed the lawsuit, which alleges that IDOC has violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution by censoring Black & Pink mailings to individuals in at least eleven prisons. The lawsuit also alleges that IDOC has violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause (by failing to provide adequate notice or opportunity to challenge this persistent censorship), as well as the amendment’s equal protection clause.

UPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center allege that the censored mail does not pose a threat to security or safety in the prison, but that IDOC is intentionally discriminating against Black & Pink based on the LGBTQ identities of its members and subscribers, and the organization’s position and promotion of criminal justice reform.

Black & Pink primarily operates through mailings, specifically a monthly newsletter, zines, chapter updates documenting ongoing projects, and birthday and holiday cards, which it sends to its over 900 subscribers in Illinois prisons. Mailings often contain information on prisoners’ rights and criminal justice reform, particularly information which impacts LGBTQ individuals in particular.

Between September 2016 and April 2018, IDOC improperly censored materials from Black & Pink on at least 202 occasions. The censored mail has included introductory letters and information about Black & Pink’s pen pal program. Even holiday cards have been banned; a holiday card with a chapter update was rejected at Western Illinois prison and Danville prison, both of which informed prisoners: “We are discouraging communication between our prisoners and the Pink & Black [sic] organization, so we cannot allow the receiving of more propaganda.”

“Prisoners are extraordinarily isolated. Publications give them a lifeline to the outside world. Almost all prisoners will one day be released, and it does no good to isolate them while they’re inside. Having ties to the outside while in prison is one of the best predictors that someone will not return to prison,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of Uptown People’s Law Center.

“LGBTQ people in IDOC custody regularly report that they spend each day enduring constant abuse and harassment because of who they are,” said Sheila Bedi, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “Not only do IDOC officials often participate in this abuse, they also censor Black and Pink’s correspondence — the one supportive resource available for LGBTQ people living behind bars. IDOC denies LGBTQ people in its custody from receiving greeting cards and information about their legal rights merely because they are LGBTQ. This type of discrimination is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution and results in depriving LGBTQ people of a vital lifeline,” Bedi said. “This lawsuit is not just about censorship — it’s also about one of the ways IDOC unlawfully discriminates against LGBTQ people.”

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