An incarcerated educator was fired from his teaching job at an Illinois prison after arguing with a prison counselor about whether he could teach students that literacy tests given to voters during the Jim Crow era were a racist attempt to suppress the Black vote.

Now the instructor, Anthony McNeal, is suing in federal court, claiming the counselor and the prison warden violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

McNeal was teaching a peer-led civics class the state is required to provide for people exiting prison at Centralia Correctional Center in southern Illinois. At the end of February, a federal lawsuit against the counselor and the prison warden was filed on behalf of McNeal, who said he was fired because he told students the literacy tests were racist.

“This case is about a prisoner, a Black man who was teaching about the history of racism in the South and the suppression of Black votes, who got fired for telling the truth,” said McNeal’s attorney, Alan Mills.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections wrote in an email that they cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

Voter education for returning citizens

A page from the curriculum material used in a prison civics education class that is now part of a federal lawsuit. Courtesy of Chicago Votes

The Re-Entering Citizens Civics Education Act, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, requires Illinois prisons to educate incarcerated people about their voting rights in the year before they are released. The law says the program should be taught by trained peer instructors who will provide students with “nonpartisan information on voting history procedures.”

McNeal began teaching the civics course in 2019 while he was incarcerated at Pontiac Correctional Center. He offered to teach it at Centralia Correctional Center after he was transferred there in early 2022.

According to the lawsuit, McNeal taught the class at Centralia for almost a year before he was fired. On March 1, 2023, a student in the class asked McNeal about the Jim Crow laws. McNeal then described the use of poll taxes and literacy tests as a means to suppress the Black vote.

Nathan Tucker, the prison counselor supervising the class, interrupted McNeal and instructed him to present literacy tests “as having a legitimate nondiscriminatory purpose of ensuring that voters ‘knew what they were voting for’,” according to the complaint. Tucker did not respond to a request for comment.

McNeal argued that the fact that Jim Crow laws were intended to suppress the Black vote was part of the curriculum and was covered under the 2019 law.

At the end of class, Tucker demanded that McNeal hand over his teaching notes. When McNeal refused, the counselor had an officer confiscate the notes, according to the lawsuit.

In a subsequent disciplinary report provided verbatim in the complaint, Tucker wrote that McNeal said the Jim Crow laws were “all about racism to black [sic] people.” He said he intervened when he saw the class “start engaging with the racist direction McNeal was leading them down.” McNeal continued to argue with him, Tucker wrote, and he “was worried that the class would get out of order.”

Tucker’s disciplinary report charged McNeal with insolence, disobeying a direct order and bringing unauthorized material (his teaching notes) into the class. Tucker also noted that McNeal “argued against me in front of my class.”

A week later, a prison program committee found McNeal guilty of all disciplinary charges and recommended he no longer be allowed to teach the civics class. Warden Daniel Monti officially removed McNeal from his teaching position on March 23, 2023, according to the complaint.

McNeal wrote in an email to Open Campus he pushed back when Tucker told him to stop teaching the curriculum because “the issues were too important for me to ignore or to be concerned about what may happen to me.”

While the disciplinary report was eventually expunged, McNeal believes it might have hurt his case for clemency when he went before the Prisoner Review Board for an executive clemency hearing in July 2023. He has been incarcerated for more than 30 years on a life without parole sentence.

A contested history of voting

Professor Christina Rivers, who teaches African American politics at DePaul University, wrote the section of the voter education curriculum that focused on poll taxes and literacy tests, which were used mainly in the South from the late 1800s until the 1960s to prevent Black people from voting.

“We wanted people who are on the inside to understand why voting is important,” she said. “So I wrote it to put voting in fuller context and to make sure that people understand that voting has always been contested in this country, particularly for people of color and African Americans.”

If instructors are being told not to call literacy tests racist, that’s an example of “complete willful ignorance of painful truths,” Rivers said. “This isn’t even critical race theory, it’s just history.”

Critical race theory — an academic and legal approach that holds that systemic racism is part of American society — has been the target of conservative groups through attempts to ban books about race in schools and libraries.

The idea for the voter education bill came out of a public policy think tank that Rivers runs at Stateville, a men’s maximum security prison outside of Chicago. Access to information about the political process is important because many people who are exiting prison in Illinois don’t know that their voting rights are restored as soon as they step outside the prison gates, Rivers said.

One of Rivers’s students, Michael Simmons, suggested that the voter education be taught by peer educators, who already run reentry workshops on topics such as employment and healthcare.

Using peer facilitators made it not only more likely that students would engage with the material, but also difficult for the corrections department to object on the basis of cost, Rivers said. The peer teachers don’t get paid, but they can earn credit toward getting time off their sentences.

Brian Beals taught the civics education class at two prisons before he was exonerated last December after serving 35 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He said that he never received any pushback when he was teaching the curriculum, but he’s not surprised by what McNeal alleges. Some of the staff who were supervising the classes he taught had never been exposed to the material he was teaching about the history of race and voting rights, he said.

Beals said many of the incarcerated students he taught thought that voting didn’t matter, but after the workshop “we saw quite a turnaround in that attitude.”

Since the voter education law, which passed with nearly unanimous, bipartisan support, went into effect in 2020, around 350 incarcerated peer educators have been trained, according to the nonprofit Chicago Votes which helps provide the civics training.

A matter of civic engagement

McNeal, who had previously been a certified peer educator on topics such as HIV prevention, wrote in an email to Open Campus that he wanted to teach the civics class because he wanted “to help them see that the major problems they saw within our communities could be solved with a ballot in the voting booth.”

His attorney Mills, who is executive director of the civil rights law firm Uptown People’s Law Center, said the incident at Centralia isn’t necessarily a reflection of the positions of Gov. JB Pritzker or Latoya Hughes, the acting director of the Illinois Department of Corrections. The law center filed the complaint to clarify that peer educators can’t be fired for teaching the approved curriculum, Mills said, and that McNeal didn’t do anything wrong.

If he were to prevail, McNeal would not be able to receive any monetary damages, which federal law prevents prisoners from receiving unless there has been a physical injury. “This lawsuit is not about money,” McNeal wrote.

He sees it as an act of civic engagement — the type of action he was teaching his students about: “It is about cutting through a culture of racism and unfair and inequitable [treatment] that are pervasive throughout the Illinois Department of Corrections.”

This story was co-published by WBEZ ChicagoSign up here for College Inside, an Open Campus newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons.

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