New California prison censorship rules ban ‘Windows 7 for Seniors for Dummies’ and ‘Your Child’s Development from Birth to Adolescence’ as too hot for prisoners
by Kim Rohrbach
On April 30, the Office of Administrative Law gave the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation its approval on amended censorship regulations proposed by the department over a year ago. The amended regulations as approved and now in effect are essentially identical to those the department originally put forward on March 25, 2014, which drew sharp public criticism.
In justifying the changes last March, the CDCR nebulously raised concerns about publications containing the “propaganda” of groups that are “oppositional to authority and society” and/or “deviant in nature.” Disallowing the publications of such groups, not to mention publications indicating “association” with such groups, the CDCR claimed, was necessary to ensure the safety and security of its institutions.
Many read this as a notification of intent to ban periodicals like the Bay View, which has previously been censored, along with other periodicals.
In a memo dated April 30, Mark Storm, senior attorney with the OAL, wrote that the agency’s action in approving the amendments “eliminates disparity among institutions regarding processing and clarify [sic] existing statutes on obscene materials in institutions.” A plain reading of the amended language, though, shows ample room left for ambiguity and abuse.
Granted that the ultimate authority to place text-only publications on the CDCR’s Centralized List of Disapproved Publications is placed with the Division of Adult Institutions. (See Section 3134.1(d) and (e). This and all subsequent citations are to California Code of Regulations, Title 15.) However, individual officers ranked captain or higher may be granted authority to “disallow” correspondence at their personal discretion under Section 3135(a).
In addition, amended Section 3134.1(d) allows institutions to “temporarily” withhold individual issues of periodicals even if those periodicals do not appear on the Centralized List of publications. Pursuant to Section 3135(b), officers are not supposed to disallow mail due to “disagreement with the sender’s or receiver’s morals, values, attitudes, veracity, or choice of words.”
Yet this is cold comfort given that qualified officers have free reign to disallow mail. This includes personal mail containing materials they consider obscene and containing materials or photographs they think indicate “an association with validated STG members or associates.” (See Section 3135(c)(12) and (14); the latter is newly added.)
The amended regulations as approved and now in effect are essentially identical to those the department originally put forward on March 25, 2014, which drew sharp public criticism.
Nexus with security threat groups and validation
The CDCR defines the term “security threat group” or STG in the same way that it defines the term “gang.” Both definitions are given in Section 3000 and are loosely construable. Being validated as an STG member or associate can be thought of as being handed a second sentence on top of the court-ordered sentence one is already serving.
Validation happens after an investigation is conducted, and an affirmative conclusion arrived at, by the CDCR alone. No judge is involved, much less a jury. For that matter, there needn’t even be any criminal conduct alleged.
Once validated, a person may be held in isolation on a prolonged or indefinite basis, spending up to 24 hours a day in tiny concrete-and-steel box. Such treatment constitutes torture, according to internationally recognized standards, and is an affront to commonly held notions of dignity and humanity.
This brings us back to the topic of disallowed mail. As earlier stated, written materials and photographs are subject to being disallowed if they “indicate an association with validated STG members or associates.” What’s more important is that they’re often used to validate or revalidate a person. (See Section 3378.2(5)-(6).) If your uncle is validated and you’ve written down his address next to his name on a scrap of paper, this may be used as a “source item” counting against you, although it’s supposed to be considered “with other STG activity/behavior.”
The CDCR’s current (6/1/2015) Centralized List of Disapproved Publications
Readers may be wondering about the CDCR’s Centralized List of Disapproved Publications. An apparently current copy of the list dated June 1, 2015, is 14 pages long. The bulk of the titles on it, like “Hustler” or “On Our Backs,” can probably be found at many adult bookstores selling old or new merchandise.
The California Penal Code affords prisoners no right to read, purchase or receive “obscene” publications as defined by the Penal Code. Just the same, it’s scarcely surprising that people isolated by gender and kept in cages for years to decades on end might crave material with sexual content, “obscene” or not.
Other titles, although few that this writer noticed, could lend themselves to officers’ fears of prisoner-led rebellion: Examples are “US Army Special Forces Guide to Unconventional Warfare: Devices and Techniques for Incendiaries” and “Design for Hackers.” The CDCR is given wide leeway of course where it comes to ensuring the “safety and security” of its broadly despised institutions.
Numerous other publications on the list bring to mind neither adult bookstores nor rag-tag insurrection and sabotage. These include “500 Fairy Motifs,” “Basic Drawing,” “Thirty Something Magazine,” “Color for Painters: A Guide to Traditions,” “Complete Anatomy and Figure Drawing,” “Drawing and Illustrations,” “Drawing the Living Figure,” “Felon Fitness: How to Get a Hard Body Without Doing Hard Time,” “Life Drawing,” “Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People,” “The Big Book of Drawing,” “The Art of Faery,” “The World of Jack L. Morris” (this book apparently features poetry, artwork and writing of a man kept in Pelican Bay’s SHU for some 25-plus years), “Windows 7 for Seniors for Dummies,” “Windows 8 Application and Development for Dummies,” “Window 8 Quick Step” and “Your Child’s Development from Birth to Adolescence.”
So what’s going on here? Is it that the CDCR doesn’t want those under in its control to be able to communicate their experiences through artistic pursuit or to draw any peace from it? Is it that the CDCR does want those who’ve finished their sentences or have paroled out to be lacking basic technological literacy upon release, after being incarcerated for a decade or beyond? Is it that the CDCR wants them to be equally unprepared for parenthood?
Lack of notice regarding disallowed publications
Pursuant to Section 3134.1(e), “a” centralized list of disapproved publications “shall” be distributed to each of the department’s institutions. How often the list must be updated or distributed – and whether the same list must be provided to prisoners – is not stated.
In any event, this writer was recently unable to locate a copy of any such list through the CDCR’s website and only obtained the copy discussed herein as the result of another journalist’s public information request. Thus, how can those with family or loved ones in prison know in advance whether or not any given publication (much less any other material) they want to send in will be rejected? The amended Section 3134.1(d) only clarifies that “prisoner addressees” must be notified upon a publication being withheld, i.e. after they’ve wasted their money and postage.
In 2014, the Bay View published articles, letters and opinion pieces in which people expressed a multiplicity of misgivings about amended censorship regulations now in effect. People on either side of the mass-incarceration spectrum (those locked up in the joint or not) wrote in.
Moreover, during public campaigns in both June 2014 and in November 2014, a total of over 500 comments on the regulatory changes were submitted to the CDCR through Californians United for a Responsible Budget alone. Some quantity of all the comments the CDCR received, which were overwhelmingly negative and included those independently submitted by individuals and organizations, have since been “responded” to in digest by the CDCR.
These are included in the department’s April 30, 2015, Final Statement of Reasons (at http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Regulations/Adult_Operations/docs/NCDR/2014NCR/14-05/Adopted%20Regulations%20Effective%204%2030%202015.pdf, last visited June 26, 2015). A single concession won through this effort that can be pointed to: The Final Statement of Reasons, in contrast to the March 25, 2014, Initial Statement of Reasons indirectly referenced at the top of article, omits all references to “groups deviant in nature, opposed to authority and society.”
Kim Rohrbach’s work as an activist and an advocate includes participating in Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition and California Prison Focus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.