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Amplify the voices these prisons try to silence: Fight censorship from California to Pennsylvania

February 24, 2015

Pack the courtroom for the hearing on Abu-Jamal v. Kane, challenging Prisoner Gag Law SB 508, on Thursday, Feb. 26, 10 a.m., in U.S. Courthouse, 228 Walnut St., Courtroom 2, Harrisburg, Penn.

by Willow Katz

“(T)he only recourse for those who demand accountability and the rule of law in the justice system is to amplify the very voices these prisons try to silence.” – “Institutionalized Cruelty: Torture at SCI Dallas and in Prisons Throughout Pennsylvania,” a report by the Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up! chapter in Pittsburgh, Penn., page 4

Departments of corrections and state legislatures are putting into place chilling bans on free speech and expression by prisoners, formerly incarcerated persons, family members, friends, journalists, advocates and activists. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has proposed new “Obscene Material and Contraband” censorship regulations. Pennsylvania passed Prisoner Gag Law SB 508, prohibiting prisoners, those formerly incarcerated and others from speaking and publishing.

“Know Your Rights” – Art: Criss Garcia, J-93559, PBSP SHU C1-112, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532

“Know Your Rights” – Art: Criss Garcia, J-93559, PBSP SHU C1-112, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) new proposed ‘Obscene Material and Contraband’ censorship regulations

The purpose of proposed CDCR regulations is, according to their website, to forbid “publications that indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society.” The new regulations would allow CDCR to temporarily or permanently delay or deny mail, newspapers, newsletters, personal correspondence and visits.

The regulations state: “Obscene material … is material … which … lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” It would include “written materials or photographs that indicate an association with a validated [Security Threat Group] STG member or associate.” CDCR has a long history of denying the value of political, historical and cultural materials and viewing them as what were formerly called gang and are now called STG “written materials or photographs.”

They have long banned references to and writings by revolutionary prisoner George Jackson. The new regs are likely to ban letters, publications or visits based on content such as:

  • name, contact info or photo of family member, loved one, friend or correspondent deemed a STG affiliate or validated person;
  • cultural icons such as a jaguar, pyramid, the “warfare or weaponry” of an Aztec warrior or an image of Martin Luther King Jr. – e.g., publications reporting on the film “Selma”;
  • a copy of or contact info for the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper and other publications that give voice to the prisoners.

These regulations can ban mail or publications that report critically on prison conditions, policies, operations, programs or procedures; criticize solitary confinement and other prison torture and abuse; or organize peacefully to improve conditions, including prisoner hunger and work strikes.

Prisoners’ mail and visiting privileges could be revoked, blocking supportive relationships and heightening the torture of prisoners, families, loved ones and communities.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” The “Obscene Material and Contraband” regulations violate First Amendment and the human rights to free expression and association for prisoners, family members, loved ones, friends, journalists and rights advocates. They can even violate California Code of Regulations (CCR)’s own rules. Title 15, Section 3135(b) states: “Disagreement with the sender’s or receiver’s morals, values, attitudes, veracity or choice of words will not be cause for correctional staff to disallow mail. Correctional staff shall not challenge or confront the sender or receiver with such value judgments.”

The “Obscene Material and Contraband” regulations violate First Amendment and the human rights to free expression and association for prisoners, family members, loved ones, friends, journalists and rights advocates.

Prisoner activists inside CDCR SHU torture units have said:

  • “This is an attempt to silence prisoners and publishers whose voices have been prominent in waging struggle against prisoners’ perpetual suffering. CDCR wants to stifle prisoners’ truths and disconnect them from society at large.”
  • “They want to be free to pursue the maintenance of the SHU torture units and the expansion of the prison industrial complex – and the ever-growing portion of the public’s tax dollars – without the prospect of legitimate criticism and the voice of opposition.”

California has held “tens of thousands of prisoners, including the 14,000-plus prisoners held in solitary confinement torture chambers (i.e., SHU and Ad-Seg units) for decades!” declared the Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor Collective in its “Agreement to End Hostilities” issued Aug. 12, 2012. The U.N. identifies over 15 days in solitary confinement as torture.

We cannot let these regulations go into effect. Be ready to respond massively to the next round of opposition to CDCR’s proposed “Obscene Material and Contraband” censorship regulations.

Pennsylvania Prisoner Gag Law SB 508

Before he left office, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law SB 508, the Revictimization Relief Act, also called the Pennsylvania Prisoner Gag Law, the Muzzle Mumia Act and the Silencing Act. It uses arbitrary and vague language, is entirely subjective, and could be used to ban articles and books as well as academic and political speech.

It is intended to silence current and former prisoners and those who aid them in communicating to the outside world. This includes family members, journalists, non-profits and many others.

Carey Shenkman, New York City-based First Amendment and human rights lawyer, explained that the “Revictimization Relief Act allows victims of personal injury crimes to sue” convicted person(s) “to silence any speech that allegedly ‘perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime’ or causes ‘mental anguish’ … regardless of the issues they address.”

SB 508 was written in response to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement address to Goddard College graduates in October 2014. In a speech recorded on the phone from the Mahanoy state prison in Frackville, Penn., Mumia urged graduates to go out and change the world. He made no mention of the crime for which he was wrongfully convicted.

The Pennsylvania Prisoner Gag Law is intended to silence current and former prisoners and those who aid them in communicating to the outside world.

Shenkman stated that the president of the “Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police association … has called for the public to ‘inflict economic punishment on the supporters’ of Abu-Jamal” and on those who disseminate his work, including Amnesty International, Democracy Now, HBO, NPR and Temple University.

Shenkman wrote: “(W)hat comes next? Censorship of articles in support of the rights of those convicted …? Taking away the right to counsel of convicted persons …? Prohibiting journalists from interviewing prisoners because … (it) might cause ‘mental anguish’?”

SB 508 violates First Amendment rights of prisoners, journalists and others to speak, report and publish, and the public’s right to hear. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have publicly criticized SB 508. On Nov. 10, 2014, the Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project and Prison Radio filed a free speech federal lawsuit, Abu-Jamal v. Kane, to stop Senate Bill 508 from silencing prisoners and those who amplify their voices.

Shenkman wrote: “(W)hat comes next? Censorship of articles in support of the rights of those convicted …? Taking away the right to counsel of convicted persons …? Prohibiting journalists from interviewing prisoners because … (it) might cause ‘mental anguish’?”

Other plaintiffs in the suit include the Human Rights Coalition, a prisoners’ rights group; Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, a prisoner serving a life sentence who edits HRC’s The Movement magazine; Robert L. Holbrook, a prisoner who has written about criminal justice issues for several publications, including The Movement and the Bay View; Prison Radio, which recorded the Goddard commencement speech and coproduced the documentary film, “Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary”; and Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, which often publishes writings by prisoners or interviews them by live telephone calls.

Nikki Grant and Ashley Henderson of the Amistad Law Project flanking imprisoned writer Robert Saleem Holbrook and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center are some of the brilliant and courageous legal minds challenging Pennsylvania’s Prisoner Gag Law.

Nikki Grant and Ashley Henderson of the Amistad Law Project flanking imprisoned writer Robert Saleem Holbrook and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center are some of the brilliant and courageous legal minds challenging Pennsylvania’s Prisoner Gag Law.

Daniel Denvir, senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper, and other reporters and media institutions have filed a separate lawsuit for violating reporters’ First Amendment rights. Denvir warns of an immediate chilling effect that could stop prisoners from writing about the reality inside U.S. prisons, the largest prison system on earth, with over 2.2 million Americans behind bars.

On Thursday, Feb. 26, Bret Grote from the Abolitionist Law Center and Nikki Grant and Ashley Henderson from the Amistad Law Project will urge Judge Conner to issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting Pennsylvania’s attorney general and Philadelphia’s district attorney from using the Silencing Act to censor plaintiffs’ speech. Oral arguments will be heard at the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, 228 Walnut St., Harrisburg, Penn., in Chief Justice Christopher O’Conner’s courtroom, Room 2, at 10 a.m.

Check out:

CDCR Proposed “Obscene Material and Contraband” Censorship Regulations and Pennsylvania Prisoner Gag Law SB 508 would be extremely dangerous for the movements for prisoners’ and formerly incarcerated persons’ rights, against mass incarceration, and to abolish the Prison Industrial Slave Complex.

Defeat CDCR Proposed “Obscene Material and Contraband” Censorship Regulations!

Overturn Pennsylvania Prisoner Gag Law SB 508!

CDCR Proposed “Obscene Material and Contraband” Censorship Regulations and Pennsylvania Prisoner Gag Law SB 508 would be extremely dangerous for the movements for prisoners’ and formerly incarcerated persons’ rights, against mass incarceration, and to abolish the Prison Industrial Slave Complex.

“I would say this: we should be shouting at the top of our lungs.” – Mumia Abu-Jamal

Willow Katz has worked long-term to free political prisoners, for social justice, and for prisoners’, women’s, and LGBTIQ rights. She works with Sin Barras (Without Prison Bars), Global Women’s Strike, Haiti Action Committee, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Willow can be reached at sinbarras@gmail.com.

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7 thoughts on “Amplify the voices these prisons try to silence: Fight censorship from California to Pennsylvania

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