Lee Gaines ’11 makes her living with words, but it was the numbers that floored her.
In 2017, the National Public Radio journalist was told by a Chicago-based volunteer group that without donated books, Illinois’ 28 correctional facilities would receive virtually no new reading materials. Intrigued, Gaines dug deeper, and through a Freedom of Information Act request she learned the Illinois Department of Corrections that year spent only $276 on books for its entire educational program.
Not only was the figure alarmingly low, it was nearly inexplicable given that the IDOC had spent upwards of $750,000 for reading materials as recently as the early 2000s.
Gaines, who works for NPR member station Illinois Public Media, reported last April on the IDOC’s meager spending on its libraries, and included expert testimony about the links between enhanced educational opportunities and lower recidivism rates. Since her story ran, the department has committed $350,000 for book purchases.
But she wasn’t done. This May, in a story that earned national attention, Gaines reported that the Danville Correctional Center had removed more than 200 books, most about race, from a college-in-prison program library. Titles by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, among others, were taken off the shelves, and other books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a biography of Frederick Douglass, and even a children’s book about the experience of visiting a parent in prison weren’t allowed into the prison.
The story prompted outrage across the state, including within the legislature. In the wake of Gaines’ story, Illinois returned the books to the prison and the Illinois Department of Corrections has revamped its publication review policy to prevent future acts of arbitrary censorship in state prisons.
In both instances, Gaines banged at the doors of agencies and institutions who were unwilling to surrender information if it meant they’d be painted in a negative light. Their resistance motivated her.
“‘You can’t know this’ is about the worst thing you can tell a journalist.”
Gaines, a Newport, R.I. native, majored in English at Clark, where she was challenged to probe for truth rather than accept things at face value. She recalls Professor Betsy Huang’s speculative fiction class as a particular opportunity to view the world through other lenses. “I loved that class,” she says. “I remember the books we read, and watching ‘Blade Runner’ with a critical eye. It was the first time in my education career I felt I was being challenged in a different way.”
A journalism course and an internship at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette sparked an interest in reporting. After graduation, Gaines worked for the Wellesley Townsman (Mass.), covering everything from crime stories to local politics to human interest features (“I basically wrote that paper,” she laughs, “except sports.”) She also learned how to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to uncover malfeasance in the public school district’s business office, producing a series of award-winning stories that pitted her against The Boston Globe, which also was investigating.
Gaines left Massachusetts and moved to Chicago, disillusioned with the state of corporate-owned print journalism.
“The veil was lifted and I understood the precariousness of this industry and its challenges,” she says. “But that didn’t deter me from continuing to work in print journalism for another five years.”
She freelanced for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, and other city publications, as well as for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization focusing on criminal justice issues in the United States. But after years working in print, Gaines concluded that a career in newspapers was unsustainable. She was an accomplished, respected writer in a field with dwindling job prospects.
“It was clear to me I had to rethink my approach to journalism,” she recalls. “I had to pivot.”
Conversations with a friend working at Chicago’s legendary public radio station WBEZ, and with others doing audio journalism and commentary, convinced Gaines to embark on a career in radio. She landed at Illinois Public Media, a midsize station located on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“I had to learn how to be an NPR reporter; how to think about sound and how it plays a role in your storytelling. But I was determined to continue doing journalism, and it was the smartest move I made. I felt like someone had given me a life raft because there were jobs here.”
While working on the education beat, Gaines met with a group called Books to Prisoners. “They essentially told me if they didn’t send donated reading materials to people incarcerated in Illinois prisons, then those people would not have things to read,” she says. “They said the librarians who work in these prisons have no money to buy books, which I thought was crazy.”
That tip led Gaines to research and publish a series of stories examining the barriers that exist for people who are currently and formerly incarcerated when it comes to obtaining an education — including decreased spending on libraries and lack of other educational opportunities.
“Like many states across the country, Illinois is under a lot of pressure to depopulate its prison system,” she says. “We’re in this moment where criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue. There’s a recognition on both sides of the political aisle that the way we’re doing things right now doesn’t really make sense. I think that’s one reason why this story really took off.”
Gaines’ story on prison censorship in the Danville prison also “blew up.” Working in tandem with a Chicago Tribune reporter over many months and encountering numerous official roadblocks (“I FOIA’d the crap out of them,” she notes), Gaines learned that two prison officials, including the warden, had ordered the books removed because of their racial themes, not because they hadn’t been “properly reviewed” (the IDOC’s official explanation). She was interviewed on the nationally syndicated show The Takeaway, and recently was invited to speak about her experience alongside First Amendment experts at a Providence event.
Gaines is now working on a national NPR story about censorship occurring in prisons across the country.
“Reporting that story was incredibly satisfying,” Gaines says. “The Illinois Department of Corrections will never say, ‘Because of you we’re rolling out a new publication-review policy.’ But that’s OK. At least we finally got some answers.”