Questions remain over censorship in California prisons

December 16, 2010
By

At a time when WikiLeaks is under attack for embarrassing the U.S. government and at a time when Al Jazeera has been shutdown in Kuwait for a similar act, California has a free speech and free press issue of its own.

Revolution newspaper, a publication of the Revolutionary Communist Party, says it has been banned from California’s Pelican Bay and Chuckawalla Valley state prisons. The restriction on the newspaper came about when prison officials claimed the newspaper violated the California Code of Regulations, which prohibits materials in prisons that incite violence or physical harm.

The newspaper and its supporters say these claims are unfounded. The Southern and Northern California chapters of the ACLU argue the prisons are violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and California law.

In February, Revolution’s publisher RCP Publications received a letter from Pelican Bay State Prison stating the newspaper “will not be delivered to inmates … because it promotes disruption and overthrow of the government and incites violence to do so.” Days later, the publisher received another letter, this time from Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, stating Revolution was “ban[ned] from all institutions within the State of California.”

A Pelican Bay inmate appealed the decision, but the ban was upheld. In their March 16 appeal response, prison officials said their review of the newspaper only confirmed the claims concerning Revolution. They said the newspaper stated the need to “overthrow the government … with the use of force, causing death and destruction to its citizens and … economic structure” and asked its readers to devote their lives to and “be willing to lay it down” for the cause.

The ACLU reviewed past issues of Revolution and says the claims of prison officials “do not hold water.”

“These statements are not found in Revolution newspaper, nor are they an accurate paraphrase of the material that appears in the paper,” wrote ACLU attorneys Peter Eliasberg and Michael Risher in a letter to Pelican Bay, dated June 7. “Nowhere in Revolution is there any kind of express or implied urging on or encouraging of violence.”

To make matters confusing, RCP Publications received a contradictory letter, dated May 21, from Pelican Bay that said “an across-the-board ban of your newspaper is not in effect.” The letter stated the ban was only with respect to specific issues.

A recent forum was held at USC to discuss the ban and prisoner’s rights. According to panelists Clyde Young of Revolution and Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, neither prison has offered any documentation showing how Revolution is violating regulations.

“They haven’t divulged any information,” said Young. “There has been an attempt by the ACLU to actually force them to hand over the information they have that led up to this ban. So far they have been obstinate.”

Previous documents from Pelican Bay specifically cite Revolution issues 180-182, 184-187 and 189-192 as inciting “racial violence” and “governmental anarchy.” Quotes or exact articles are not referenced.

“It is so typical of government when it is censoring or restricting to just use labels,” said Rohde. “To say that Revolution newspaper promotes racism when its the racism of the system that the newspaper is exposing is an obvious ploy. The censor often manipulates what they want to suppress to make it more palatable to the general public and eventually the courts.”

Per the California Code of Regulations, if a publication is to be disapproved for distribution to prisoners it must be placed on a centralized list. This is done by the Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation and not by individual prisons.

“The publication Revolution is not currently on the centralized list of disavowed publications,” said department spokesperson Peggy Bengs. “There is no state-wide ban on it.”

Bengs said the decisions of Pelican Bay and Chuckawalla Valley were reviewed by the department and the decisions reversed.

“The problem has now been fixed,” she said.

However, as of Nov. 28, Revolution reported in their newspaper “that at least some issues of Revolution are not getting through to some prisoners. … Last month, Pelican Bay officials returned a batch of various single issues of Revolution (June to October) addressed to 10 different inmates.”

Knowing what is going on inside the prisons is difficult for Revolution’s supporters. Accurate and timely information is a rare commodity when dealing with prisoners who are short on stamps and can only communicate by mail. Weeks can go by between asking a question and getting an answer.

Whether a ban is still in effect at Chuckawalla Valley is unknown as its one subscriber to Revolution has since transferred to another prison. However, the exact reasons for the original ban in either prison remains unknown and whether problems of censorship still exist is a mystery.

Rohde’s speech at the USC forum focused on prisoners and the First Amendment. He argued that censorship relies on the false notion that human behavior is prompted by a single cause. In other words, people erroneously think that what someone reads or hears is the sole source of their actions.

“The truth is, we know that human behavior is the product of innumerable causes and life experiences, including how society treats a person, that leads to their conduct,” he said.

According to Rohde, there was a greater respect for a prisoner’s First Amendment rights in the 1970s, but this has since eroded. He insisted it is the duty of government to treat its people humanely and with dignity and respect. On the issue of the First Amendment, he gave the government no quarter.

“Censoring the idea that government is repressive and tyrannical does not eliminate the idea that government is repressive and tyrannical,” he said. “In fact, censoring the idea corroborates and documents that government is repressive and tyrannical.”

He vowed the ACLU would continue its work until the ban is verifiably lifted and the documents behind the censorship were revealed.

***

Revolution newspaper is distributed to inmates through the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF), a non-profit that distributes by request revolutionary materials to inmates. The organization has been fighting the prison ban by gathering evidence and obtaining legal counsel from the ACLU.

The PRLF has roughly 800 subscriptions to prisoners across the country, 45 of whom are at Pelican Bay. On its website, the organization publishes letters of appreciation and transformation from inmates.

Mike Holman, PRLF’s executive director, says the material they distribute provides prisoners with a unique opportunity to raise questions concerning politics, culture, philosophy, morality, religion, science and the arts.

“Prisoners don’t get that anywhere else,” he said. “They also don’t get such an opportunity to think critically about what’s going on in the world and to consider alternates to the system we live under now.”

One of the issues of Revolution, number 183, which was banned in Pelican Bay, focused on prisons and prisoners. The issue centered on such issues as the ill-treatment of inmates and the disproportionate incarceration rate of minorities in the U.S. There is also an article, written by Revolutionary Communist Party leader Bob Avakian, envisioning a better society. Letters from prisoners who also speak of the need for a different society appear in the issue as well.

“This is not the kind of thing prisoners often hear,” said Young. “What they often hear are attacks on them for being criminals, attacks on them for being in gangs. I will be the last one to say they are not capable of really horrible things, but they are also capable of magnificent things. And this is appealing to that side of them.”

At this week’s forum, actors from the theatre company Dramastage-Qumran read a selection of those letters to the audience. It is the intention of the PRLF and Revolution to shatter stereotypes by showing the inspired intellectual and human side of prisoners.

“[The] letters really give a very small glimpse of the suppressed human potential that is locked up behind walls,” said Holman. “What we strongly believe is prisoners have a right to the life of a mind.”

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One Response to Questions remain over censorship in California prisons

  1. Eric Oxelson on December 21, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Thank you. Well conceived, well edited and well written.

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