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California prisons silencing SF Bay View

August 2, 2010

by Nick Theodosis

Drawing titled "Under Lock & Key" by Michael A. Wortham, H-69234, D-Fac, P.O. Box 8504, PVSP, Coalinga CA 93210
In 1974 (Procunier v. Martinez) U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall sought to protect the practice of free speech by challenging a standard illegitimate dictate of prison authority: censorship of prisoners’ mail. In opposition to prison officials’ desire to quell dissent and regulate opinion in the yard, Marshall appropriated – indeed, elevated – the discussion to the level of moral indignation:

“The First Amendment serves not only the needs of the polity but also those of the human spirit – a spirit that demands self-expression. Such expression is an integral part of the development of ideas and a sense of identity. To suppress expression is to reject the basic human desire for recognition and affront the individual’s worth and dignity.”

Just over a decade later (Turner v. Safley) Sandra Day O’Connor agreed, asserting that “prison walls do not form a barrier separating prisoners from the protections of the Constitution.”

Yet such bold proclamations from the bench rarely provide comfort to those who need it most.

“To suppress expression is to reject the basic human desire for recognition and affront the individual’s worth and dignity.”

Today, according to numerous reports from inmates in several California state prisons, free speech inside the penitentiary is increasingly becoming a scant luxury, not the universally recognized right abstracted by federal judges. Reality, it seems, is closer to the view offered by the ACLU that “prisoners’ First Amendment rights are far more limited than those of non-prisoners, and prison officials can significantly restrict the publications prisoners receive.”

Stifle tactics: Bay View as prison contraband

As early as March 2008, the San Francisco Bay View began receiving dispatches from California prisoners alerting the newspaper that prisoners in possession of the newspaper were being charged with gang affiliation and having their subscriptions withheld.

Ed Furnace, formerly at Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), informed the Bay View that he had been segregated from the general inmate population and exiled to solitary confinement in part for possessing a Bay View article on Black August, the commemoration of Black radical resistance centered on the Marin courthouse rebellion that occurred Aug. 7, 1970. Furnace believes the segregation violated his First Amendment rights and possibly constitutes defamation: They (SVSP) are “essentially saying that the article is gang recruitment material when it is not.”

When Furnace challenged court authorities in June to demonstrate how his possession of the Bay View and other so-called gang “source items” provided the requisite “direct” link to gang activity, the court appealed to Webster’s dictionary, ruling, “While neither the statute nor case authority specifically defines the term, the dictionary defines ‘direct’ as meaning, among other things ‘without interruption or diversion,’ and ‘without any intervening agency or step.’” Despite no evidence of prior or current affiliation, the California prison system has thus acknowledged that Furnace’s fate will not be decided empirically, but rather by manipulative word play.

On June 10, 2010, Derick Lovings, a prisoner at Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP), was subjected to what he believed at first to be a routine cell search. “I was told it was a random cell search. However, after speaking with the sergeant I was informed it was for a Bay View magazine.”

According to prisoner reports, prisoners at Corcoran, Chuckawalla, Kern and Pelican Bay state prisons are facing punitive action by prison officials including what’s known as administrative segregation, leading to an unofficial yet effective ban on the Bay View newspaper.

“I was told it was a random cell search. However, after speaking with the sergeant I was informed it was for a Bay View magazine.”

Administrative segregation, or “Ad Seg,” is a process used to isolate prisoners from the general inmate population. Once segregated, prisoners are often placed in solitary confinement, formally called Security Housing Units (SHU). In the SHU, prisoners experience extreme sensory deprivation – a clear form of psychological torture according to mental health experts and prisoner advocates, who continue to castigate the process as inhumane.

It is also well documented that in addition to the psychological effects of such confinement practices, prison guard brutality is not uncommon in the SHU. According to the Prison Law Office, a leading public interest law firm, Corcoran State Prison, one of the institutions implicated in the current ban, gained particular “notoriety for violence, including ‘gladiator fights’ in which prison guards put hostile prisoners on group yards, bet on the resulting fights, and sometimes shot the prisoners involved.”

Stays in the SHU commonly follow what are known as “validations.” Inmates get validated when prison officials decide that the prisoner fits one of their criteria for gang affiliation. Possession of gang-related contraband is one such criterion and according to recent reports from California prisoners, the Bay View is now being compared to white supremacist and other racist propaganda.

What’s the justification for this claim? According to Derick Lovings, prison officials are arguing for the need to uphold standards of objectivity. “Is this some sort of Black Panther paper?” reportedly queried a certain Capt. Flores of KVSP. “You know we don’t allow the white supremacist literature inside.”

Aside from the transparent ignorance of the actual content of the Bay View, what is more disturbing is the obvious assumption that the Black Panthers and, by implication, the Bay View, represent racist opinion. Assuming the Bay View can be likened to white supremacist literature adds validity to Ed Furnace’s claim that the actions of recent California prisons border on libel.

At the very least, it reinforces the understanding, perhaps now simply taken for granted, that behind the walls of the penitentiary, where rights are “more limited,” such absurdities are commonly upheld as instances of objectivity.

Banned by the CDCR

While some prisoners are being punished for possessing copies of the Bay View, others in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) system are having their subscriptions withheld and, in some cases, charging that their outgoing mail is not being sent.

Randall Ellis, a prisoner at Pelican Bay, filed a lawsuit July 6 against the prison for withholding a letter sent to the Bay View back in August 2009. Keith Barnett, a former Corcoran, now at Kern Valley, has not received his subscription to the Bay View since August 2008 despite the papers’ consistent mailing. In February of this year Barnett wrote that he had begun to “believe that the prisoncrats were censoring the publications allowed into the SHU at Corcoran” and suggested the Bay View pursue legal action.

Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
The apparent censorship of the Bay View in California prisons coincides with accounts of another banned periodical, Revolution, the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. According to Revolution, officials at two California prisons where bans are alleged to be instituted have had little to say. Officials at Pelican Bay have remained silent on the issue except to emphasize that “no ban of Revolution Newspaper is in effect.” Similarly, the assistant warden of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) claims, “Revolution does not have a blanket ban at Chuckawalla.” Both statements do not deny that a prior ban had been in place, merely that they are not instituting one currently. However, Revolution maintains that prisoners, as recently as June, continue to be denied their subscriptions.

Rebellion is printing the Black voice

Regardless of the outcome of his lawsuit against Pelican Bay, Randall Ellis vows to continue to speak out in support of “Blacks’ various struggles in this country and shed light on the false attacks levied against [Blacks] for writing about and studying [their] history.” An admirable task not pursued nearly enough and a call to arms for those who enjoy far greater freedoms.

The Bay View is often the only window to the world for countless Black prisoners. It provides perspective and insight into issues facing the Black community long ignored by the mass and most independent media. Attempts to silence or pacify its content only serve as a reminder that, as Black radical activist Ashanti Alston points out, “The state is inherently oppressive as a mechanism that cannot give, grant, guarantee or preserve freedom.”

Freedom is not a gift or benevolent judicial gesture; it is something fought for by people like California prisoners, enlightened souls with little left to lose. So long as their freedoms are left to the whims of wardens, the Bay View will continue to share their voice and support their struggle. That they’ll likely be denied the freedom to read this article is, in Thurgood Marshall’s words, perhaps the greatest assault on an their “worth and dignity.”

Nick Theodosis is a graduate student in philosophy at San Francisco State University. He can be reached at nmtheo@mail.sfsu.edu

How you can help

Legal assistance to help the Bay View and prisoner subscribers pursue their rights is welcome. So are contributions to the Bay View’s Prisoner Subscription Fund, so more prisoners can read the Bay View and join the many subscribers behind enemy lines who say, “The Bay View keeps me alive.”

Contribute online by clicking on Support SF BayView near the top left of every page at www.sfbayview.com. Scroll down to the section headed “DONATE” for simple instructions on contributing to the Prisoners Subscription Fund. If you’d like to give a gift subscription to a prisoner you know, scroll down further to the section headed “SUBSCRIBE” to read the easy instructions.

And send our brothers who are taking the lead in this freedom fight some love and light: Edward Furnace, H-33245, CSP 4B-4R-31, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212; Derick Lovings, T-42634, A-8-211, P.O. Box 5101, Delano, CA 93216; and Randall Sondai Ellis, C-68764, SHU D2-213, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95531.

 

10 thoughts on “California prisons silencing SF Bay View

  1. g.holzer

    I can tell you that the CDCR will never admit to misplacing mail, nor refusing to send or allow an imate to recieve "ALL" mail. As my partner is in prison with about 1 year left, i have sent school books valued at over $200.00 through USPS only to have them mysteriously disappear. Had numerous letters, drawings going both directions either never show up to the final destination or become seriously back logged, as in several months late. And being a prison you get the standard song and dance, that oh the mailroom is overloaded. Well to my knowledge the CDCR is one of the largest employers in California and they aren't letting staff go. So what gives. Most of the folks in the mail room don't even read the mail they forward it to yard officers to do that. As for outgoing mail i know personally that if a guard sees a drawing/illustration by an inmate that they like, well guess what its theirs, and who is to say differently as it is coming from a "Criminal" and in their eyes they are getting theirs. what can you really do? nothing.

    Reply
  2. DrBCayenne Bird

    The only way to end the oppression is to do massive voter registration in poor neighborhoods as “decline to state” party and prevent all people taking money from law enforcement labor unions from getting elected.

    That includes all of the Republicans and about 15 moderate Democrats. It is our job to keep the obstructionists out of power.

    Register 20 people and teach them to register 20 more. Hand the newly registered people 20 blank voter registration forms and ask them to repeat the process. When a large enough voting group exists, we can elect, recall and easily pass initiatives. That part is something we need to do unless we like being ruled by law enforcement’s puppets in office.

    Reply
  3. 600rr

    who cares about the inmates why don't you usw this energy and focus on more helpful issues like teachers that were laid off because the state has no money because the state spends so much giving these animals free medical care , medication, and food. I know of one inmate that it cost the state at least $1 million to keep alive and he is a lifer never getting out. While we waste money on him we cut programs from childeren that have a future and hard working people. I say do like other countries they only get feed if family brings them food and they get no medical on the state the family has to pay. If you support the inmate cause you are a fool because they will stab you in the back over drugs or money in a heart beat.

    Reply
    1. Frank Courser

      I do! They are human beings like you. I know many inmates and former inmates that help others. Was not Martin Luther King jailed? Did Nelson Mandela serve years in prison? Who created the drug laws? Alexander Bell, Thomas Edison were addicts yet gave us all so much. Its really all about the money! Those that have a vested interest in incarceration just like the slave owners. When a person is made a ward of the courts, we the tax payers must give them medical care. Would you let your brother die of something he could be treated for? They are all my brothers!

      Reply
    2. Sharon Daily

      What a stupid fool you are to make such an ignorant statement! I just wonder if you would feel the same if one of those inmates you care so little about was your child. And you are an idiot if you think it could never happen to your loved one. In fact, I hope it does! You deserve to have someone you love treated like an animal or worse, even better, maybe it will be you in that cage.

      Reply
  4. Ja'maal Shabazz

    I think the in the minds of the Bay View's editorial board, the only truly just system would be one where only white people went to jail (except for white people who blacks like, such as Lynne Stewart). I have never seen a single article where it was accepted as just when a black was given a jail sentence. Even drug dealers or murderers are only viewed as accessories, put up to it by the White Man. Let me tell you that in my 24 years as an African-American member of the NYPD there are many cases where I have seen African-American men commit crimes without a white pulling the strings. I have seen many blacks who actually received preferential treatment when arrested because of a fear of discrimination lawsuits. If we arrested a white under similar circumstances, he often would receive inferior treatment, because there are no laws that give whites special protection. That is true racism, laws that protect one ethnic group at the expense of another. The absurd perspective that this paper gives about every single arrest is designed to ferment racism. Not the racism of whites oppressing blacks, but the racism of blacks hating whites and blaming them for all their problems. I've met a total of seven racist whites in my line of duty. But the racism that I've seen among blacks is so pervasive that it truly makes me feel sad and ashamed. I know that I'll be called an "Uncle Tom" or a race traitor for this, but let me assure you, I am as black and proud of it as MLK. In my line of duty, I, and my white colleagues too, are not out to oppress anyone. We are out to protect the citizens of New York, regardless of skin color. We are living Martin Luther King's dream.

    Reply
  5. Ja'maal Shabazz

    Selina, you are a shame to your race. First, you seem incapable of proper spelling and grammar. Second, your use of "whitey" and "darkie" show you to be a racist. You are no better than a white hooded Klansman. Is it "not black" to get a job? Is it "too white" to behave responsibly, make decisions based on firm empirical evidence, and to be logical? Am I being an "Uncle Tom" for criticizing racism, whether the racists are black or white? Your ignorance makes me sad, and is a shameful betrayal of the principles that men like Martin Luther King, Jr. gave their lives for. His dream was not whites dominating blacks, nor was it blacks dominating whites. It was blacks and whites living together peacefully. White racism is almost completely dead, I have seen tons of evidence that it is so with my own eyes. Black racism, like yours, is on the rise, and would make me ashamed of my heritage, if it weren't for the fact that men like Walter Williams, Booker T Washington, and Jackie Robinson shared the same color as me.

    Reply
    1. Selina

      Whatever I type fast and I don't ck what I wrote but YOU got the message !!!!!!!

      In response to your previous comment including this one:

      "Black racism, like yours, is on the rise, and would make me ashamed of my heritage, if it weren't for the fact that men like Walter Williams, Booker T Washington, and Jackie Robinson shared the same color as me"

      Reply
  6. Selina

    You ought to be ashame for making the statement of so-called "Black Racism" when majority of blacks in a so-called black community don't even control the economy in their communitry.

    What is Racism, racism is having the power to choose who, based on color of skin, can attend the institution you control and work in the coporation you own. For example Johnny Cochran Law is offices located in LA isn't control by his offsprings that firm is control by whites, PHat Farm once owned by Russell Simons is now control by whites, meaning everytime we create a company we end up be forced out of it by whites so who is the Racist. Another example is the Iraq and Afganistan ( mis-spell) war you see Racist attack by the US Army on the culture of the natives in those countries.

    TO END THIS I'D SAY YOU ARE THE IGNORANT ONE BECAUSE YOU LACK KNOWLEGE LIKE SO MANY LAZY BLACK PEOPLE WHO DON"T READ BECAUSE IF YOU DID YOU WOULD NOT HAVE MADE THOSE IDIOTIC COMMENTS

    Reply

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