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Prison hunger strikers face reprisals as papers that back them are censored

November 17, 2013

by John Studer

Since some 30,000 California prisoners launched a hunger strike July 8 against the practice of long-term solitary confinement and other abuses, participants have faced punitive retaliation and censorship of newspapers and other media that backed their fight.

Georgia prisoners reading SFBV- Israel Espinoza, Jamelle Tatum, Eugene Thomas, Quayshaun Adams 012611 by Robert Broughton, cropped, web
The newspapers being censored are the newspapers prisoners love for recognizing their dignity and the righteousness of their cause and for reporting – often through publishing the writing of prisoners themselves – on the growing movement to stop mass incarceration. It is by reading these papers that 30,000 California prisoners knew enough about the demands driving the latest hunger strike to make the potentially fatal decision to join it.
Abuses continued after prisoners suspended the strike Sept. 5, following promises from elected officials to begin legislative hearings into prison conditions and from state prison authorities to convene talks on inmates’ demands.

The hunger strike was widely reported in the national and international press, including in publications that back the fight for the rights of workers behind bars, such as the San Francisco Bay View, Prison Legal News and the Militant.

On Sept. 9, the Militant received notice from Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Florida that they had impounded the July 22 issue reporting on the launching of the hunger strike from a subscriber there. Since then, two other prisoners — another from Florida and one in Washington state — reported to the paper they too were denied issues of their subscription.

The Militant, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, fought this censorship. So far, authorities at the two Florida prisons have been pushed back and delivered the inmates’ papers. Efforts to win the same are underway in Washington.

On Oct. 18, four leaders of the prisoners’ fight confined in Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Units wrote a letter to Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, asking that he meet with them and undertake to “bring both our conditions and our human rights movement to the attention of the international community.”

“Over 3,500 prisoners remain isolated in California’s SHUs with almost no human interaction, little opportunity to exercise or even see the sun, and forbidden from contact visits or telephone calls with their families,” the four — Todd Ashker, Arturo Castellanos, Antonio Guillen and Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa — wrote. “They join thousands of others who are held in different forms of solitary confinement throughout the system.”

“I believe the prisoners should have newspapers,” Marie Levin, sister of Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, told the Militant. “My brother’s writings have been reprinted in the San Francisco Bay View. That is how prisoners keep informed.

“The people running the prisons try to keep newspapers with prisoners’ point of view from going in, papers such as the Rock, the Bay View, the Militant and Prison Focus,” she said. “Especially during the hunger strike they wanted to keep the prisoners from knowing what is happening.

“When I heard the Militant had won a victory, I wasn’t surprised,” Levin said. “They had no valid reason to keep the paper out. They just wanted to put a roadblock in the way. You have to stand up to them. If you don’t, they’ll continue to block it.”

Since some 30,000 California prisoners launched a hunger strike July 8 against the practice of long-term solitary confinement and other abuses, participants have faced punitive retaliation and censorship of newspapers and other media that backed their fight.

Thousands of former hunger strikers, both those in solitary and in the general population, have received Rules Violation Report notices. These disciplinary reports can extend your time in solitary, lead to imposition of a host of other restrictions, or become the basis for being denied parole.

Backers of prisoners’ struggles are organizing to get letters protesting the victimizations to Michael Stainer, director of the Division of Adult Institutions at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Stainer’s address at the CDCR is P.O. Box 942883, Sacramento, CA 94283, or Michael.Stainer@cdcr.ca.gov.

Newspapers and the prisoners they support fight back

The Militant’s fight against attempts by prison officials to deny the paper to its subscribers behind bars is one front in a much broader battle against censorship and for the right of prisoners to read and think for themselves.

Working with the Florida ACLU, the Militant won an appeal Oct. 11 against the impoundment of one of its issues that reported on the hunger strike of prisoners in California by the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. That effectively banned the issue for all Florida state inmates.

A number of defenders of freedom of the press and publications that speak out for prisoners’ rights backed the Militant’s fight, including the San Francisco Bay View, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and supporters of the hunger strikers in California.

“Prison Legal News has faced censorship since it put out its first edition in 1990,” Paul Wright, who was incarcerated in 1987 and began putting out the newsletter from prison in Washington state, told the Militant in an Oct. 30 interview. “If anything, it has intensified since then.

“When I first went into prison in Washington, the list of reasons for denying material to prisoners was eight pages,” he said. “Today it’s 35 pages long.”

The newsletter currently has 7,000 subscribers. “More prisoners are interested today. At the same time, when Florida decided that we were banned, we lost 300 readers.”

“Everything that is critical of the status quo is likely to be targeted,” Wright said. “But lots of generic mail gets censored as well. In a number of states we are kept out because institutions are adopting blanket policies that everything except postcards are barred.

“We’ve been very successful challenging censorship, but we don’t have the resources to meet every move,” he said.

“What the Militant faced in Florida is part of the effort of the authorities to constrict political space for everyone,” said Wright.

A number of defenders of freedom of the press and publications that speak out for prisoners’ rights backed the Militant’s fight, including the San Francisco Bay View, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and supporters of the hunger strikers in California.

The Militant is currently pressing to get prison authorities to deliver the paper to an inmate in Florida who wrote that he hadn’t received it for six weeks and another prisoner in Washington state who wrote to say prison officials came to his cell and removed issues that had coverage of the California hunger strike.

Prison censorship widespread

“Sadly, it seems things haven’t gotten any better as far as this prison giving us [the San Francisco Bay View],” Richard Garcia, who is imprisoned at Pelican Bay State Prison in California, wrote in a letter printed in the Sept. 12 issue of that paper. “I never did receive your April or May issue. On Aug. 1, they gave me your June and July issues and explained they were held pending investigation. But now they’re also holding your August issue.”

The Bay View has published statements by leaders of the hunger strike, as well as letters and articles by inmates describing prison conditions. “Fighting censorship in prisons is fighting for the human rights and dignity of captives whose very humanity is regularly denied by their ‘keepers,’” Dr. Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the Bay View, wrote in the same issue.

Garcia, one of the 30,000 who went on hunger strike, wrote that he was also denied Prison Focus and other publications.

Prison Focus, based in Oakland, Calif., is a publication for and on behalf of prisoners edited by Ed Mead, a former prisoner in Washington state.

“It is only the existence of an active movement for change that will ensure enforcement of the rights of prisoners,” Mead wrote in the summer 2013 issue, “not the mere promises of prisoncrats nor the mood of the courts.”

This story combines two stories from the Militant newspaper: “‘Militant,’ other publications fight prison censorship” and “Prison hunger strikers face reprisals as papers that back them are censored.” The Bay View thanks the Militant for its solidarity and strong opposition to prison censorship. John Studer, a leader of the New York branch of the Socialist Workers Party, has been covering prison censorship for nearly a year for the Militant.

 

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