by K. Kersplebedeb
On Oct. 7, political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim was denied four books which arrived for him at Attica Correctional Facility. Muntaqim is a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army and one of the longest held political prisoners in the world today; he has been incarcerated since 1971, when he was only 19 years old.
In the case of the Attica book ban, Muntaqim was initially told he could have the books, but when a guard noticed that one of the titles in question was actually written by Muntaqim himself, he simply said, “No way.” Muntaqim requested the books be sent to media review pursuant to Directive 4911(H)(1)(b), but the officer refused, stating that the books would either all have to be destroyed or else sent to some outside address.
Muntaqim opted for the latter. However, three weeks later, no books have arrived at the address given, and the prison has not issued any slip or official explanation for the book ban.
Mail censorship is of course nothing new in U.S. prisons. Prison regulations vary – in some jurisdictions, like New York, the standard having to do with the safety and smooth operation of the prison system; in others, the rules are more obviously Orwellian. For instance in California, recently adopted regulations refer to “propaganda” of groups that are “oppositional to authority and society” and/or “deviant in nature.”
But in practice, mailroom censorship is arbitrary and capricious, with a strong bias against radical left-wing, anti-racist and anti-prison publications. Given the degree to which prisoners are already cut off and isolated from their communities on the outside, mailroom censorship can constitute an important obstacle to communication, education and personal growth for those held in the world’s largest prison system.
At Attica, mailroom censorship already made headlines earlier this year, when a front page New York Times article was heavily redacted before being allowed to prisoners who subscribed to the newspaper. The article in question detailed ongoing guard brutality at Attica, focusing on the case of George Williams, a prisoner who was severely beaten by guards for the “crime” of allegedly cursing at them, on Aug. 9, 2011. Initially, the prison had attempted to simply censor the entire newspaper; it was only following appeals that they relented.
Mail censorship is of course nothing new in U.S. prisons.
Mailroom censorship and manipulation of the mail are forms of harassment that can also be used to target specific individuals. Indeed, this is something Muntaqim knows from first-hand experience. In 2012, Muntaqim was sent to the SHU (solitary) for six months, after photographs of children wearing t-shirts with the Black Panther logo were confiscated from his cell. The photographs had been taken at the recent funeral of Michael Cetewayo Tabor, another former Panther, and had been approved by the mailroom – only to then be confiscated in Muntaqim’s cell and used as an excuse to send him to the SHU.
In practice, mailroom censorship is arbitrary and capricious, with a strong bias against radical left-wing, anti-racist and anti-prison publications.
The current case is simply a more petty example of harassment directed against someone who is hated for what he represents, as an unbroken and unrepentant former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member. Regarding the fact that his book has seemingly been banned, Muntaqim has noted the arbitrary nature of the process:
“We have apartheid in Attica. No reason has been given for why this book is being banned, why an author cannot even receive his own book.” Given the personal nature of many of the poems in question, Muntaqim has noted the irony of the situation, rhetorically asking, “Why is my book being kept out of apartheid Attica, but I am not?”
As Muntaqim notes in his written formal complaint to Superintendant Dale Arbus, “Needless to assert here, there is a plethora of legal cases and court rulings that deny violation of First Amendment guarantees as pertaining to free speech and receipt of literature for prisoners. This includes the procedural due process right for the handling of literature for prisoners. In this case, those procedural due process rights are promulgated in DOCCS Directive(s) #4911, #4572 and Employees Manual §14.4.”
The current case is simply a more petty example of harassment directed against someone who is hated for what he represents, as an unbroken and unrepentant former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member.
Indeed, Muntaqim is correct: DOCCS Directive #4572 reads, “It is Departmental policy to encourage inmates to read publications from varied sources if such material does not encourage them to engage in behavior that might be disruptive to orderly facility operations,” and “Publications properly received at the facility for an inmate in mail or packages shall be delivered to the inmate in the ordinary course of mail or package delivery, unless referred to the Facility Media Review committee upon a reasonable good faith belief that the publication violates one or more of the Media Review guidelines … Publications referred to the Media Review Committee shall be delivered promptly to the Media Review Committee. Notice to the inmate is made by using Form #4572A, which must be placed in the institutional mail at the same time as the publication is referred.”
Directive #4572, which was violated by Attica mailroom in this case, is in conformity with the Supreme Court’s 1974 ruling, in Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, which “required that an inmate be notified of the rejection of correspondence, and that the author of the correspondence be allowed to protest the decision and secure review by a prison official other than the original censor.”
The books in question, banned by the Attica mailroom in defiance of the aforementioned legal requirements, were “Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust” by Darrell M. West; “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else” by Chrystie Freeland; “Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History” by Diana Block; and “Escaping the Prism … Fade to Black,” this last being written by Muntaqim himself.
“Escaping the Prism … Fade to Black” was published in September of this year and is Jalil’s second published book. It includes 51 of his poems and 13 short texts which initially appeared on his website, freejalil.com. Also included in the book is art – including many drawings and collages by prisoner-artists Kevin “Rashid” Johnson and Zolo Agona Azania – a preface by Walidah Imarisha, and a detailed essay by Ward Churchill, recounting the NEWKILL frame-up, a COINTELPRO-style operation that led to Muntaqim’s imprisonment.
Also included are a number of reproduced United States government memos detailing the involvement of the FBI in railroading him along with his codefendants Herman Bell and Albert “Nuh” Washington. None of the aforementioned could conceivably constitute “a possible threat to orderly facility operations,” the standard that is supposed to be used when deciding to disallow material in the New York state prison system.
Jalil has asked that people contact New York Department of Corrections Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci to request an investigation of arbitrary and capricious book-banning at Attica. When contacting Annucci, please note that Muntaqim is being held under the name Anthony Bottom, #77A4283. Write to: Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner, New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Harriman State Campus, 1220 Washington Ave., Bldg. 2, Room 315, Albany, New York 12226.
K. Kersplebedeb is a Montreal-based publisher and distributor of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal literature and a longtime anti-prison activist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kersplebedeb, CP 63560, CCCP Van Horne, Montreal, Qc, H3W 3H8.